The chief of the judicial branch of state government is asking legislators for a “status quo” budget, but warns it means justice for Iowans will be “rationed.” 

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus delivered the annual “Condition of the Judiciary” address this morning in the Iowa House.  

“The general theme of my previous reports has been that the state of the judiciary is good,” Ternus said.  “This year, however, I cannot give a favorable report.  The budget cuts of the past decade have taken a heavy toll on the ability of the judicial branch to fulfill its constitutional mission. Consequently, the ability of Iowans to receive the court services the constitution affords them has been reduced and justice hangs in the balance.” 

Ternus is asking for a nearly $149 million budget for the state’s court system in the next budgeting year, an amount her aides say is equal to the budget the courts are currently operating under after last fall’s 7.1 percent across the board cut.  (While the across-the-board reductions in the executive and legislative branches equaled 10 percent, Ternus ordered a 7.1 percent cut to match the projected shortfall in state tax revenue.) In December, Ternus ordered 10 mandatory furlough days for court staff. 

Ternus told lawmakers she and other justices on the state’s high court are hearing from Iowans who have an “overarching concern” about reduced access to the courts.

“Justice is not an optional government service,” Ternus said this morning.  “Justice is a ‘constitutional imperative.'” 

Last year, 11 percent of the court’s staff were either let go or open jobs were eliminated, according to Ternus,  who used the word “plummeted” to describe the drop in court staff.  Ternus told legislators the court system has repeatedly done “more than its fair share” in cutting its budget.  

“Today, Iowa’s court system operates with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987….Yet over the same period, the number of cases filed in our courts, excluding simple misdemeanors and scheduled violations, has increased by 66 percent,” Ternus told legislators. “You heard right.  After 22 years, we have fewer people to handle a 66 percent increase in the most serious and time-consuming cases on our docket.” 

Ternus acknowledged the “grim reality” of the state’s current budget situation, but warned court staff can only do so much and the justice system will not be able to provide access to Iowans in need until “resources” are restored to the courts.

During her speech, Ternus did not directly mention last April’s Iowa Supreme Court ruling which legalized gay marriage.  But a report her staff distributed to legislators and the media this morning featured a page with this sentence as a headline: “There is much more to the work of the courts than the occasional high-profile case that attracts public attention.” 

At the beginning of her speech, Ternus quoted Alexander Hamilton, suggesting “justice is the glue that holds our diverse society together.”