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Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 03 April 2009 13:27
Rural Officials Decry Impact of Court Travel Cuts

Proposals to allow voluntary furloughs of Iowa's 350 judges and magistrates, and voluntary judicial travel without reimbursement, cleared a first hurdle this week in the legislature.

The action came after officials from rural Iowa called upon Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and the legislature to make changes needed to provide equal access to justice across the state. A county supervisor, police chief, small-business owner, and attorneys this week joined state lawmakers in lamenting the impact that budget cuts and a 60-percent reduction in judicial travel has had on rural Iowa.

Esther Dean, an attorney who's vice chair of the Muscatine Board of Supervisors, said the travel restriction means Muscatine only gets a district court judge 12 days of the month, while Cedar and Jackson counties only get a judge four days of the month.

"We are effectively denying citizens timely access to the court system," Dean said. "Several can't afford to go to another county to have access to the court system."

Tipton attorney Douglas Simkin described a situation last month in which several people had to travel to Clinton at their clients' expense for a 15-minute court hearing. "This is a denial of justice to the people who can least afford it," he said.

Daisy Wingert, who owns Daisy's on the Square floral and gift shop in Tipton, said the cuts have affected businesses, too. "The courthouse is like a magnet bringing people into town," she said.

State Representative Jeff Kaufmann (R-Wilton) suggested that Ternus and the Iowa Supreme Court are playing political games by not allowing Iowa judges to travel on their own dime, even if they've volunteered to do so.

"We are not asking; the judges are volunteering," Kaufmann said. "I know of two specific districts where judges have volunteered to waive their travel fees, have stated that publicly, and they have been told that they cannot do that. I not only call that bad policy, I call that some of that political leveraging in our justice system that's not tolerable to our constituents."

Representative Nathan Reichert (D-Muscatine) added: "A lot of times, ... we'll see in tough times [that] departments will play games with closing very key services of their department in order to gain some political edge and get more funding for their department in the next budget cycle. Let's not play political games. Let's make justice work. Let's make state government work."

But State Court Administrator David Boyd denied that the courts are playing politics. "I guess all I can do is simply deny it," he said. "That's not the issue. The court wasn't trying to make a particular statement. ... We simply had to find ways to reduce our budget in Fiscal Year '09."

Boyd said there are liability issues that go with voluntary travel. "I know it sounds simple that either litigants or lawyers or even the county could possibly pay for that, but in Iowa, justice is not for sale," he said. "We're not going to do something that gives the appearance that if you've got money, we'll take that as opposed to someone who doesn't."