DES MOINES — When life handed the judicial system lemons in the form of COVID-19, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen formed a lemonade task force to review the emergency rules it had been operating under for more than a year.
“It’s not real original, but it seems appropriate,” the chief justice told legislators Wednesday during her second annual Condition of the Judiciary speech at the Iowa Capitol.
In reviewing the emergency orders for emerging from a COVID-19 world, “we may have jumped the gun a bit,” she said. The panel instead recommended which rules should be made permanent, modified “or kicked to the curb.”
As a result, Christensen issued an order recognizing “the court system is 100 percent fully operational, but we are continuing some practices adopted on an emergency basis” to keep proceedings moving “without jeopardizing health or conflicting with their work schedules.”
The rules are consistent with her personal mission of “providing Iowans with a sense of peace that we've got this,” Christensen told legislators. “The Judicial Branch will continue to block out all the noise brought on by the pandemic and we will continue to stay laser focused on our steadfast commitment to ensure each and every Iowan has meaningful access to justice.”
She said she would continue to prioritize juvenile justice to ensure that “Iowa stands out among all the other states in implementing Family First, a federal funding bill based on the belief that kids do best with their families.” The 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act was intended, in part, to keep children out of foster care or, in cases were foster care was needed, to redirect federal funds to family-based settings.
“I am so thrilled to stand up here today and say, ‘We can start to check that box off,’” she said. Based in part on asking “why can’t this child go home today?” removals of children from their homes have been cut nearly in half.
The chief justice also has established a task force to undertake a “comprehensive, holistic review of the juvenile justice system for the first time in 30 years.” Some children are in the justice system because they are what is referred to as a “Child in Need of Assistance,” needing protection from someone else — often another family member. Others are delinquent and society needs protection from them, Christensen explained.
“Oftentimes, children are living in both of those worlds,” she said.
The Juvenile Justice Task Force will look at the continuum of care in the juvenile justice system and make recommendations to improve services, governance, funding and data collection as well as address the system's racial and gender disparities, Christensen said. In addition to people who work in the juvenile justice system, Christensen has included legislators because she anticipates revisions to current law will be necessary.
Christensen also is asking legislators for a 6.7 percent increase for the Judicial Branch for fiscal 2023, from its current $189,640,252 budget to $202,468,895. She wants to fill vacancies that were held open to balance the current budget; provide a 5.9 percent salary hike for judicial officers; continue a five-year plan to add four district associate judges and 10 staff members; a family treatment court coordinator as well as staff support in court administration; and staff attorneys for the business court, Appeals Court and Supreme Court.
Legislative appropriations committees have not started their budget work, but Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, who chairs a subcommittee that drafts the court system’s budget, said there are good things happening in the court system. At least 90 percent of the court system’s budget is for salaries, and House Republicans want to maintain staffing levels and courtroom hours in the courthouses in all 99 counties.
“There are a couple of things they’re asking for that are kind of out there in terms of the reality of the budget,” Worthan told Radio Iowa.