One of Iowa’s talented historians delivered an important lesson last week. But instead of standing in front of a school classroom, he was in the chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives.
The teacher was Mark Cady.
The subject of his lesson was a proud chapter in Iowa history and how events today are threatening one of our state’s claims to greatness.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own.
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Cady’s day job is chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. It was in that role that he was in the Capitol last week to speak to members of the Iowa House and Senate, Gov. Kim Reynolds and a gallery filled with dozens of spectators.
The purpose of the Chief’s appearance was his annual condition of the judiciary report. His report was both inspiring and quite sobering.
He talked about the huge budget challenges facing the state’s courts today.
There are 10 percent fewer people working for the court system than lawmakers authorized a year ago. There are 115 essential jobs waiting to be filled, and the number is growing. There is a freeze on establishing more special court programs to deal with juvenile offenders, users of opioids and other drugs, and lawbreakers who are struggling with mental health issues.
“These shortcoming, and others, are mostly the result of insufficient resources,” Cady said. “… They are beginning to tear at the very fabric of our operation and our mission.”
Cady’s remarks were met with polite applause and a half-dozen ovations. The most-sustained applause came when he told the crowd about the anniversary of a landmark event in Iowa history that is coming this year.
Cady’s history lesson is known to legal scholars as Clark vs. Board of Directors. It illustrates the fundamental importance of a healthy court system in our state — a court system that provides the means for people to seek a resolution for their disagreements and differences.
The case began in 1867 after Susan Clark, a 12-year-old Muscatine girl, was denied admission to the public school near her home because she was African-American. Her father, Alexander Clark, was told she could attend a separate school for black children.
Cady explained what happened next with the Clarks: “He turned to the process of government established by our forefathers and asked Iowa’s courts to help.”
Cady went on: “The Supreme Court found the school board’s decision was supported by the prevailing sentiment of the community, as well as many other communities, but not by the law and constitution of our state.”
Cady brought the crowd to its feet when he said, “The court wrote that just as a school board could not require the children of Irish parents to attend one school and the children of German parents another, the children of Catholic parents to attend one school and the children of Protestant parents another, it could not require Susan Clark to attend a separate school for African-Americans.”
The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in 1868 came 86 years before the United States Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in 1954 in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case involving the public schools of Topeka, Kan.
As Iowa lawmakers and the governor work on a new budget for the courts, Cady hopes those officials remember Susan Clark. He hopes they heed his admonition to provide more money, not less, to ensure that future litigants and criminal defendants do not get shunted aside by expectations that Iowa’s courts can continue to do more with less.
Equal access means making sure there are enough judges so cases are dealt with in a timely manner. That’s not the case now.
Equal access means people living in rural Iowa receive the same court services as those in urban counties. That’s not the case now.
Some among us might be inclined to worry less about providing extra help for drug users, the mentally ill or troubled juveniles when they violate the law. But Cady reminded people that investing in the courts and special court programs avoided $21.5 million in costs to other areas of state and local government budgets, including corrections and human services departments.
In recent years, Cady has taken pride when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Iowa’s court system the fourth-best among the 50 states. But in 2017, Iowa fell to 13th place in this ranking.
For a state with a history of judicial excellence and foresight, as the Clark case illustrates, it is troubling to see court system job vacancies pile up like a stack of exhibits at a trial, to see courtrooms and court offices closed to save money, and to see an adequately financed court system seem like a dream, rather than a reality.
That was among the takeaways I drew from “Professor” Cady’s history lesson last week. I hope lawmakers and the governor were paying attention in his class.
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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.