From Allison Danilovich
Union County Clerk of Court
Every year, legislators at the Iowa Capitol debate the role civil servants should play in moving the state forward. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, the issue of collective bargaining comes up in the conversation. And sometimes (again, as in the case of collective bargaining) public employees aren’t happy with the results. But whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, these discussions are ultimately linked to the state budget.
As clerk of court for Union County, 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. Nor are we aimless bureaucrats, sitting in back rooms untangling red tape. 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, you have worked with a clerk of court.
If you’ve adopted a child, served as executor for a will or had to file for a protective order against an abusive partner, you have worked with a clerk of court.
If you or a loved one has needed help with a mental health crisis or a substance abuse problem, you have worked with a clerk of court.
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 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 far 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 – 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 under-funding 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 speeding ticket, if it is your last day for you to renew your driver’s license or car tags and you need to pay a forgotten fine, 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 under-funding of the judicial branch, we have already seen numerous clerks of court offices consolidate or 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 and it is our rural counties, Union County included, that will bear the brunt.
And that something will inevitably affect thousands of everyday Iowans who need easy and immediate access to the courts.
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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.