Order in the courtroom

When a person receives a traffic ticket, is charged in a criminal investigation or has a civil case they need to take care of, it’s very likely they will need to go through the court system in Iowa.

But in the trial court system, the court they need to appear in depends on what the case is and the facts of the complaint or issue that needs to be resolved.

Across the state of Iowa, the three main levels of the trial court system are magistrate court, district associate court and district court.

Magistrate court is the first level of the trial court system. Webster County Magistrate Judge Steve Kersten described it as “the court of first impressions.”

“The majority of people who have been to court have experienced magistrate,” Kersten said. “The court deals with both civil and criminal cases. We handle all initial appearances, criminal and traffic charges, bonds, appointment of attorneys, landlord and tenant law and simple misdemeanor trials.”

He added that magistrate court judges are also responsible for signing search warrants and presiding over emergency committal hearings.

Generally, Kersten said everybody who has had to appear in court on a criminal, traffic or civil case has appeared in magistrate court. Even though the court can only accept pleas in simple misdemeanor cases and preside over small claims cases that involve less than $5,000, every other case has to go through magistrate court before moving on to a higher court.

It’s also where people charged in criminal cases are informed of their rights and any potential fines or jail time that they face.

While people charged with criminal or traffic citations in magistrate court have the right to a jury trial, Kersten said it’s rare that anybody actually requests one.

Though Webster County Magistrate Court meets Monday through Saturday at 9 a.m., Kersten said he’s actually on call 24/7 every third week. That responsibility is rotated among Kersten and the other two magistrate judges, William Thatcher and William Habhab.

Kersten said he takes his role as a magistrate judge seriously.

“It’s important to treat all parties with respect,” he said. “This is people’s first, and sometimes only, experience with the court system.”

On the other hand, if somebody is charged with a more serious offense or has a civil case that involves more than $5,000, it is sent to district associate court.

“District associate court handles civil cases from $5,000 to $10,000,” Chief Judge Kurt Wilke, of the Second Judicial District, said. “It also handles indictable misdemeanors, which are serious and aggravated misdemeanors, and in many cases districts can require district associate judges to handle Class D felonies.”

However, Wilke said the nine associate judges for District 2B – which is where Fort Dodge is located – don’t handle Class D felony cases. Those are handled instead by the district court, which is where Wilke presides.

Wilke is one of 17 judges who cover District 2B, which he said encompasses 13 counties. District court is responsible for overseeing all felony cases as well as civil cases that involve $10,000 or higher.

District court meets every weekday, but is generally only in session whenever a hearing or trial has been scheduled. Wilke said even that doesn’t necessarily mean court will happen.

“Cases may get scheduled and then get rescheduled,” he said Thursday. “For example, next week I was scheduled to hold a criminal jury trial. But I was just informed today that the defendant in that case has agreed to some sort of plea bargain, so I will no longer have that trial.”

While that frees up space, Wilke said he could end up filling that time with another case or another situation.

“I could end up getting called before then saying they need a judge to cover a trial in Humboldt County,” he said.

Travel is frequent for both district and district associate judges. While district associate judges mostly travel to adjacent counties, Wilke said he may be assigned to travel to anywhere from four to seven different counties in a year.

He said this practice has been in place for as long as he can remember.

“Long ago there was a determination that it’s not good to have a judge stay in one county for an extended period of time,” Wilke said. “There was concern that a judge might get too close to the lawyers, so it was decided that the judges were to move around. It brings greater fairness with different judges being on the court.”

Though the trial court system in Iowa is divided into three levels, Wilke said it wasn’t always that way. Before the 1970s, he said each county held court its own way.

“It used to be based on jurisdiction,” he said. “Every jurisdiction had different rules. Some counties would have a justice of the peace, some would have a justice of the peace and police court, and some would have county courts.”

In 1972, Wilke said the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state needed to switch to a unified system, which is how the current process began.

As a judge, Kersten said he sometimes feels courtrooms are portrayed in a negative light on TV.

“It’s not that way where the judge is so dramatic and, in a lot of cases, disrespectful,” he said. “It’s frustrating to me because that’s not what it is. Civility and decorum are expected to be maintained in court. I won’t let the parties argue or let anything get out of hand.”

Because appearing in court can be stressful, Kersten said it’s important to be respectful.

“There are emotional issues that are being dealt with, like criminal cases or evictions,” he said. “But you have to maintain civility and let people say what they need without interruption.”