The Ottumwa Courier

March 17, 2012

'On the road again:' The travels of a district court judge

Judge Lucy Gamon
submitted

OTTUMWA — “Have gavel, will travel” could be my motto. Judicial District 8-A includes 10 counties: Appanoose, Davis, Jefferson, Keokuk, Mahaska, Monroe, Poweshiek, Van Buren, Wapello and Washington. Six district court judges are charged with providing service to this large geographical area, encompassing 5,129 square miles. And, home to 163,158 people!

District judges travel the circuit to preside over routine service days, addressing emergency matters and pretrial case administration in a wide variety of cases. Counties with larger populations have court service one day each week; the counties with fewer people are serviced bi-weekly. The Iowa method of circulating different judges through the county seats assures the local people the benefit of fresh perspectives from a variety of judges. Court-service days are generally very busy with a challenging array of “the people’s business”: We address felony criminal prosecutions, divorces, child-support collections, estates, guardianship and conservatorship orders, domestic-abuse petitions, and appeals on mental-health cases, as well as other types of matters. A judge never knows exactly what may crop up for the day’s business, and shows up prepared to fairly consider any kind of case, exercising courtesy and respect for all the people involved.

Judges who are not needed to cover the service days are dispatched to preside over a trial — either a bench trial in which the judge is the decision-maker, or a jury trial in which a group of the county’s citizens render a verdict. It is a daunting task for the district’s court administrator to staff the various cases set for trial in 10 counties! Every effort is made to avoid “bumping” trials on down the calendar. Plea negotiations in criminal cases and settlements of civil disputes are a necessary part of the scheduling mix, because it would be impossible to provide trials for each case that gets filed. Last-minute cancelations do complicate the scheduling process, though, causing court administration to reconfigure the mapping of resources each day. It is often late in the afternoon when I learn where I will be traveling for my next day’s work, and what type of issues I will be called upon to decide.  

To service District 8-A’s heavy caseload, a district court judge may travel nearly 1,000 miles a month among the 10 courthouses. The modern judge needs a reliable vehicle, a full tank of gas, and a flexible attitude to deliver justice — on schedule — in a large, rural district such as ours.

Judge Gamon lives in Sigourney and maintains her office in the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa. She may be reached at lucy.gamon@iowacourts.gov