The Ottumwa Courier

April 28, 2012

Courts: Society’s Emergency Room

Court Calls

Judge James Q. Blomgren
submitted

OTTUMWA — The ailments of American society are observed daily in our nation’s courts: unemployment and other economic distress, broken families, crime, substance abuse and illegal drugs, abusive relationships, as well as other misfortunes. All must be handled appropriately and efficiently. On a routine court-service day in southern Iowa, a judge will be confronted with real-estate foreclosures and suits by credit-card companies, disputes over child custody and efforts to get child support paid in divorce cases as well as those where the parents have never married, criminal prosecutions and requests for relief from domestic violence. Indeed, the courts are aptly described as “Society’s Emergency Room.”

Like a medical emergency room, courts cannot predict what problems will come in the door, nor control the volume. The courts take all comers, and when the number of customers overwhelms the resources available, a triage must be exercised to address the most time-sensitive and critical cases first. The Iowa Supreme Court has directed the trial courts to follow a protocol established in the wake of layoffs and growing caseloads; the courts are thus compelled to prioritize work when they are unable to handle it all.  

The Supreme Court’s Supervisory Order requires judges to address, first, those cases involving children (juvenile cases, child-custody and child-support matters), jailed defendants awaiting trial and others dealing with a person’s liberty interests such as mental-health commitments. Other cases that are clearly important for the people involved, must then be put to the back of the line. These are usually civil disputes awaiting jury or bench trial (like personal-injury claims, contract actions, foreclosures and probate contests). A term coined for a case being pushed back, is “bumped” — a term no lawyer or litigant wants to hear. It is difficult for the court system to bump anyone’s case, because judges ascribe to the maxim that “justice delayed is justice denied.”  

On May 1 when we celebrate Law Day in America, the courts will be exercising a triage due to inadequate funding for Society’s Emergency Room. We continue to advocate for resources that match the people’s demand for service.  

Judge Blomgren lives in Oskaloosa and serves as Chief Judge of the 8th Judicial District. He may be reached at james.blomgren@iowacourts.gov.