TIPTON, Iowa — Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady says that Iowa courts can do more than just settle disputes and dispense justice.
With some tweaking to the system — and an extra $10 million per year from the legislature —the courts can help grow the state’s economy.
Cady spoke to a crowd of 74 people Friday at the Cedar County Courthouse.
In a $6 billion budget, Cady said he’s asking for an increase of 16/100 of 1 percent. What that extra money will help buy, he said, is “a court system specifically set up to target the industries in this state that define who we are.”
Take agriculture, Iowa’s most important industry. Cady wants to establish agriculture courts with judges who are experts in agricultural law, including genetics, patents and trademarks.
Companies that know they’ll get a fair hearing in front of a judge well-versed in the field, Cady reasons, are more likely to do business in Iowa.
“If the court system takes off, the state will take off, but it’s going to take a high-class court system, a system fully integrated with technology so we can be user-friendly to lawyers, litigants and the public,” he said.
“It will be nice,” he added, “when the governor can tell businesses (considering moving to Iowa) that Iowa has the best court system and that they can expect to be treated with fairness, promptness and efficiency.”
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Iowa already has the nation’s fifth-rated court system. But it’s slipping, Cady said.
“Too many times we are not reaching our decisions in a timely manner,” he said. “Too many times, juvenile probation officers trying to get kids on the straight and narrow don’t have time to do their job.”
The present lack of resources can cost taxpayers millions down the road, he said: a criminal involved in the judicial system his or her entire life costs the state an average of $4 million.
Iowa’s court system carries a $154 million price tag, about 2.5 percent of the state’s budget. Reps. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, and Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who both helped arrange Cady’s appearance Friday, said they wouldn’t be surprised if Cady gets at least some of the increase he seeks during budget negotiations.
“I think he’s being reasonable with the numbers,” Kaufmann said. “There will be an increase. I just don’t know how much.”
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The legislators said their goal for inviting Cady to Tipton was to show him how the justice system works in rural Iowa.
Kaufmann, a history instructor at Muscatine Community College, said to his knowledge, Friday marked the first time a sitting chief justice had ever visited Cedar County.
“I immediately sensed a western Iowa farm boy behind those robes,” Kaufmann said of his guest. Cady hails from Fort Dodge.
After his speech, Cady fielded questions from the crowd, which included both lawyers and retired people. Among the highlights:
n Taking the Supreme Court on the road to hear oral arguments — in places like Cedar Rapids, Carroll and Council Bluffs — has “shown Iowans the seriousness of the issues before us and shown Iowans how we address these matters and decide cases,” Cady said. “It’s been as meaningful for us on the court as it has for the community.”
n The removal of three justices who were part of the unanimous decision to legalize gay marriage was difficult for justices personally and professionally and “slowed us down to a screeching halt,” Cady said. “But the damage it did not cause was our commitment to our independence.”
The court has since returned to full membership. “We’re moving ahead and doing our job,” he said. “That is what judges do.”
Cady compared the 2009 Varnum decision, which he authored, to another important Iowa Supreme Court decision made in 1868: the ruling that ordered Muscatine schools to de-segregate, as petitioned by 10-year-old Pearl City residents Susan Clark and her father, Alexander.
“Ever since the Clark case, we have been deciding Iowa’s equal protection clause the same way,” he said. “We have never retreated from a right that has been granted to the people of this state.”