It’s Time to Restore Access to Justice
Editors Note: The views and opinions expressed in this editorial are not necessarily the views or opinions of Osky News.
(May 1, 2012)(This Law Day message was written by Chief Justice Cady and published today in several Iowa Newspapers)
For more than 50 years, Law Day has served as a reminder for Americans to acknowledge the fundamental importance of the rule of law in our daily lives and our way of life. President Dwight Eisenhower established the first Law Day in 1958, stating, “the principle of guaranteed fundamental rights of individuals under the law is the heart and sinew of our Nation, and distinguishes our governmental system from the type of government that rules by might alone.”
The American Bar Association has designated the theme of this year’s Law Day, May 1, to be “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.” This theme emphasizes “the importance of the courts and their role in ensuring access to justice for all Americans.” It also draws attention to the fact that deep cuts in court budgets throughout the nation, including Iowa, have compromised the people’s access to justice.
The fundamental role of our courts is to fairly and impartially resolve legal disputes and protect legal rights. Most people know that the courts have a crucial role in the criminal justice system. Many people, however, do not appreciate the crucial role of the courts in other facets of our lives. Many of us will someday depend on access to the courts for resolution of a serious and potentially life-changing personal and legal crisis. Abused and neglected children depend on our courts for timely placements in safe and stable homes. Victims of violence depend on our courts for protective and no-contact orders to help shield them from further harm. Business owners depend on our courts to resolve contractual disputes that undermine productivity and profits. Broken families depend on our courts to provide some measure of order to their lives. We all depend on courts to safeguard the rule of law, which fosters a civil, stable, and vibrant society.
Founding Father John Adams once said that ours is a “government of laws, not of men.” For this to hold true, we must maintain open, accessible, and sufficiently staffed courts. All Iowans deserve a justice system that safeguards the rule of law on a fulltime basis. Anything less secures no freedom.
In Iowa, a decade of budget cuts and chronic underfunding of the state court system has severely eroded Iowans’ access to justice. This problem is seen at local county courthouses where the vast majority of the daily work of the judicial branch is performed—where justice is dispensed and freedom is secured. The local clerk of court office serves as the gateway to the court system. Currently, however, 33 Iowa counties have part-time clerk of court offices because there are not enough employees to maintain fulltime office hours. Without more funds, there may be additional closures.
Less visible than closed clerks’ offices, but equally troubling, are the mounting delays in the trial courts, which cause people to wait longer and longer for their day in court. We are seeing bigger backlogs of cases and longer delays in resolving serious legal cases ranging from child custody battles to lawsuits for personal injury, from property disagreements to business contract disputes. These delays also jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute criminal suspects and defendants’ rights to a fair and speedy trial.
Iowans have lost a variety of critical court services due to budget constraints. For example, our juvenile court officers, the court employees who work with troubled young people, no longer have time to give these youths the personal attention and close supervision they desperately need to reform their behavior and set them on a path to a responsible and productive life. This lost service represents a lost opportunity to improve the future well-being of these youths, as well as the future of our communities, and ultimately, our state.
Iowans can be proud that their courts are considered among the most fair and impartial in the nation. Fair and impartial justice, however, means little to people who do not have access to that justice. The Iowa Judicial Branch has done all it can within its funding constraints to keep the courts open to the limited extent they are. The key to restoration of services and fulltime access to justice is funding. The Iowa Legislature holds this key.