Not just a public employee issue; ‘it’s an Iowa issue’

To the Editor:

As Clerk of Court for Webster, Hamilton, Wright and Humboldt Counties, I have been watching budget discussions at the State Capitol 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 branch’s mission of giving all Iowans equal access to justice.

If you’ve filed a small claim suit, challenged a speeding ticket, filed for divorce or back child support, you have worked with the Clerk of Court office. If you’ve adopted a child, served as executor for a will or had to file for a protective order against an abusive spouse, you have worked with the Clerk of Court office. If you or a loved one has needed help with a mental health crisis or a substance abuse problem, you have worked with the Clerk of Court office. If you have needed help with the state’s new e-filing system, you have worked with the Clerk of Court office.

Depending on your case, you might never see a judge. You may not even have an attorney, but what you should always have is a local Clerk of Court office to guide your case through the legal system from start to finish.

For many Iowans, we are the face of the justice system. Every one of Iowa’s 99 counties has a courthouse and a Clerk of Court office. However, there are only 60 Clerk of Courts as most of us cover several counties. In rural areas, our teams can be small-maybe two to four people, at most. Those tiny teams, in turn, could 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 of the state, that means closing offices if an employee goes on vacation or calls in sick.

That’s inconvenient if you’re protesting a speeding ticket, needing someone evicted, needing your child support payment or an application for court appointed counsel. 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! It’s dangerous if you need a restraining order, or are in a mental health crisis.

With the chronic underfunding of the Judicial Branch, we have already seen numerous Clerks of Court offices restrict hours over the years. We have all taken on more and more duties as vacant positions go unfilled. There is no budgetary maneuver left that will allow us to maintain the current level of staffing, services and hours. Without full funding, something, somewhere will have to give. That something will inevitably affect the smaller counties in Iowa. Small town Iowa residents deserve the same local access to the courts as residents of bigger cities. It is very possible that if the Judicial Branch isn’t given proper funding, you will be forced to drive to a different county several miles away.

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. This isn’t just a public employee issue. It’s an Iowa issue. Our work directly impacts ordinary people who live close to us, often facing desperate times, and it would be an absolute shame to deny even one person access to justice simply due to lack of financial support. Please visit www.legis.iowa.gov to obtain the contact information for your local legislators.

Tina Ganzeveld

Webster, Hamilton, Wright and Humboldt County Clerk of Court