While the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court usually listens to others make their case, Marsha Ternus took the other side and presented a case Thursday for protecting the court system from budget cuts. The Iowa Legislature will decide just how much money is to be cut from the state court system. Ternus says 95% of their budget is for personnel, so there are only two options to carry out any cuts.
Ternus says they can develop a system of part-time courts and shut down the courts for however many days it takes to meet the level of funding put forth by the legislature. "But of course how do we maintain rights, and meet our citizens needs for court services if we’re closed?," Ternus says. The other option is to layoff some of the 16-hundred court personnel, but Ternus says they are already running things without enough staff.
Ternus says they are a "constitutional body who resolves disputes and processes criminal complaints." She says they don’t have the option of saying they are going to slash a program, such as saying for example that they’re going to cut out small claims cases. "We don’t have programs to cut, when people have the need for court services, we have to be there to provide them," Ternus says. The court system shut things down on Monday to save some $335,000 Ternus says she talked with juvenile court officers and got a good idea of the problems caused by that one-day shutdown.
"And frankly I was astonished and sickened at everything that can happen in one day in the lives of our delinquent juveniles," Ternus says. Ternus says all types of legal services were delayed by the shut down Monday, and she says the situation could get even worse.
Ternus says: "Let there be no mistake, the proposed budget reductions — whether we meet them by having part-time courts or through massive layoffs, will cripple the court system. And every Iowan should be concerned about that. As one district court judge recently told his legislator, ‘all roads of commerce and social concern lead through and to the judicial branch of government’."
Ternus says she hopes legislators will look at the importance of providing enough funding for the judicial system. Ternus says they’ve closed the courts, but she hasn’t heard of any other executive branch office closing to meet the budget cuts. "I don’t think the film office has shut down for the day, I don’t see any of the universities furloughing professors. The question we face today is, what are our priorities?"
Ternus says the shut down of the court system to save money in this fiscal year was only a short-term solution. She says the 2.3 million or 3.8 million dollars that gets cut from the budget this year will not be put back into the budget for the next fiscal year. "So are we just going to continue closing down the courts year, after year, after year? And just have part-time courts. We can’t do that, so the only other option is to start laying people off," Ternus says.
She says they need the employees to process cases, as she says they don’t have enough to process the cases they have now. The legislature is expected to make a decision on the court system budget sometime in March. Ternus and state court administrator David Boyd say information on the impact of the cuts is available on-line at the judicial branch’s website .