Clerks of court short on funds
To the editor:
Every year, legislators at the Iowa Capitol debate the role civil servants should play in moving the state forward. Sometimes the issue of collective bargaining comes up in the conversation. And sometimes public employees aren’t happy with the results.
As Clerk of Court for Jefferson and Van Buren Counties, I have been watching budget discussions at the statehouse with grave concern. In our court system (the Judicial Branch), Clerks of Court aren’t front-and-center in the courtroom, like judges. We’re on the front lines, executing the mission of giving all Iowans equal access to justice.
If you’ve filed a small claim suit, challenged a speeding ticket, or filed for divorce or back child support, served as executor for a will, adopted a child, needed help with a mental health or substance abuse crisis, you have worked with us.
Depending on your case, you might never see a judge or have an attorney. But what you should always have is a Clerk of Court to shepherd your case through the legal labyrinth from start to finish.
Thus, for many Iowans, we are the face of the justice system. There are already too few of us. Every one of Iowa’s 99 counties has a courthouse. But only two-thirds of them have a Clerk of Court.
In rural areas, our teams can be small — two to four people at most. In turn, those small teams end up managing offices in multiple counties, covering 60 miles or more.
After several consecutive years of underfunding by the legislature, our resources are at the thinnest margin they have ever been. In some areas, that means closing offices if an employee goes on vacation or calls in sick.
That’s inconvenient if you’re protesting a ticket, needing someone evicted, paying or receiving your child support, or applying for counsel. It’s dangerous if you need a restraining order, or are in a mental health crisis. It’s never good business when one of the offices in your local courthouse is closed. Especially when they are closed due to budget cuts!
With the chronic underfunding of the Judicial Branch, we have already seen numerous clerks offices consolidate or restrict hours over the years. We have all taken on more duties as vacant positions go unfilled. There is no budgetary maneuver left that will allow us to maintain the current level staffing, services, and hours. Without full funding, something somewhere will have to give.
I have written to our legislators to ask for their support in fully funding the judicial branch, and I invite you to do the same.
Our work directly impacts ordinary people who live close to us, and it would be an absolute shame to deny anyone access to justice simply due to lack of financial support.
I ask you to contact me if you need further information about Judicial Branch funding or about the duties of the Clerk of Court office at Jennifer.Nelson@iowacourts.gov.
– Jennifer Nelson, Lockridge