Chief Justice Susan Christensen. (IPBS photo)

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen says there’s a critical shortage of Iowa attorneys who’ll represent indigent defendants and it’s leading to trial delays.

“This is a crisis in nearly every rural and urban county in the state of Iowa,” Christensen said. “…Delayed justice for the defendants, the victims and the community.”

According to Christensen, there are only four contract attorneys in Shelby County where she lives and, across the state, there are only 600 lawyers willing to represent indigent defendants.

.”That’s just not enough attorneys to provide the constitutional responsibility of providing legal counsel to indigent criminal defendants,” Christensen said. “How can it be when the five year average for criminal filings in Shelby County alone is 225 a year?”

Christensen, who discussed the issue during her annual “Condition of the Judiciary” address today, said attorneys tell her the shortage is even worse in juvenile court.

“Maybe it’s time for the kiddo to go home. It’ll have to wait. Maybe it’s time to remove a child from a dangerous situation? That, too, may very well have to wait,” Christensen said. “Either way, this crisis has a profound impact on Iowa’s youth and families when we cannot hold timely hearings due to the unavailability of lawyers.”

Christensen is calling on legislators to increase the hourly pay for attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants — and for paying them for mileage as many represent clients in several counties, sometimes on the same day. Christensen has issued an order giving judges discretion to hold hearings online rather than in-person to deal with some of the mileage challenges contract attorneys face, particularly in rural Iowa.

Christensen told legislators only 12% of Iowa attorneys are willing to represent indigent defendants. Christensen also told lawmakers she’s appointed a task force to examine how to address the shortage of court reporters. The chief justice said an accurate transcript of hearings and trial is critical to delivering justice, but there’s a growing number of retirements and fewer people entering the profession.