Iowa courthouse break-ins were arranged by … the Iowa courts?

“This has been quite an odd case,” said one state senator.

Last month, two men were arrested for breaking into the courthouse in Dallas County, Iowa. The same men were charged with burglarizing the Polk County courthouse around the same time. Now it has come to light that they were hired by the state court administration in order to test courthouse security.

The men apparently broke into the Polk County courthouse after hours on one occasion, then had to break back in after they realized they had left some things behind. They were not caught until the third break-in in Dallas County. Last week, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady admitted that they had been hired by the court system itself, which had proceeded without notifying law enforcement or any other governmental branch.

Chief Justice Cady apologized for the snafu, and stated that the court system and the security company had “differences in interpretations” of the security company’s contract.

The state of state judiciaries

It’s the time of year for State of the Judiciary addresses in many states, an opportunity for the Chief Justice of the state to provide the new state legislature with an update on the court system, including its strategic plans and ongoing resource needs. Several State of the Judiciary speeches have been reported in the news, allowing us to get a broad sense of what state courts are planning/hoping for in the coming year. More after the jump. Continue reading “The state of state judiciaries”

Iowa legislature to consider radical changes to judicial nominating commission

Iowa has used a nominating commission to select its judges for more than half a century. As currently comprised, the commission includes a chair (the most senior justice of the state supreme court other than then chief justice) and sixteen members, half of whom are chosen by the governor and the other half of whom are chosen by the state bar association.

But new legislation, introduced by state senator Julian Garrett, would radically revise the composition of the commission, by stripping the state bar of all but one representative, and leaving the remaining members to be appointed solely by the governor. Garrett has called the existing system “unfair” and “undemocratic,” because the bar association appointees are not directly accountable to the electorate.

It’s worth emphasizing that the bill has only been introduced, and may never see passage. But it’s indicative, at least to me, of a growing skepticism of bar associations and the legal profession generally. This is likely connected to the overall skepticism of professional expertise that is on the rise on American culture. And it means that lawyers and judges will have to work harder, and in different ways, to convince legislators and citizens that their professional knowledge is used for the public good.

Iowa judge allowed attorneys to ghost write “a couple hundred” orders and opinions

A recently retired Iowa trial judge has admitted that “a couple hundred” of his orders and opinions were ghost-written by the prevailing attorneys. Many of Judge Edward Jacobson’s requests for draft rulings were privately communicated by email.

Trial judges at all levels frequently deal with workload crunch by asking both parties to draft proposed findings and fact and conclusions of law. This is a sensible allocation of labor, since the parties and their attorneys are the most familiar with the underlying facts, and drafting orders is time-intensive. It is commonly understood among litigators that a well-drafted set of proposed findings can provide the bulk of a court’s subsequent order.

But judicial requests for proposed findings should be made on the record, in open court. Ex parte communications of the kind Judge Jacobson apparently engaged in suggest a breach of judicial ethics, or at minimum remarkable irresponsibility.

The state court administrator is investigating the matter, and has ordered that the judge’s emails be preserved for at least seven months.

Iowa Chief Justice sounds warning on budget cuts

Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady, in his annual state of the judiciary speech, recently warned that years of stagnant funding for the courts are “beginning to tear at the very fabric and operation of our mission.”  State funding to the court system for Fiscal Year 2018 remains the same as FY 2017 and lower than in FY2016. From the Des Moines Register:

Today, 182 fewer people are employed by the court system than one year ago, Cady said — a 10 percent reduction in workforce. That includes 115 essential positions that have gone unfilled, he said. Judicial branch employees include judges and magistrates, clerks of court, court reporters, IT staff, juvenile court officers and other administrative staff.

The reduced staffing has caused delays, Cady said, forcing the judicial branch to back off from a promise made two years ago to try all cases on the date scheduled without delays.

“We have been forced to walk back from this pledge because we do not have enough people to do the work to keep it,” Cady said.

 

On courtroom cameras, states continue to lead the way

As the United States Supreme Court begins another Term this month, calls for the Court to open its oral arguments to cameras are getting louder. The Court has traditionally brushed off these demands, and there is little reason to believe that it will respond differently this year. But there is yet hope for supporters of court transparency: the state courts continue to lead the way in allowing broadcasts of courtroom proceedings.  Two examples from just this week illustrate the point:

Continue reading “On courtroom cameras, states continue to lead the way”

Iowa Supreme Court bans firearms in all state courthouses

In an order issued by Chief Justice Mark Cady, the Iowa Supreme Court yesterday banned firearms from all courthouses and justice centers in the state. The statewide regulation does not extend to law enforcement officials who are on duty in the buildings.

Although about half the counties in Iowa already restrict or ban weapons in courthouses, the Supreme Court rule creates a uniform statewide regulation.

Cady said in the order said that while the weapons policies were implemented to make the courtrooms safer, they have “failed to provide uniform protection across the state and throughout every courthouse.”

He acknowledged implementing a statewide weapons policy and the issue of restricting weapons is difficult, and this becomes more complex because city and county offices are within many court buildings. But he added it’s the court’s “constitutional responsibility” to make these buildings safe “before history records more acts of courthouse violence.”