Acting Iowa chief justice: Court independence a strength 1

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Supreme Court Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins told the Legislature Wednesday that “the independence of the courts from the political branches is not a divide but our very strength as a state and as a nation.”

Wiggins, delivering the yearly Condition of the Judiciary speech, acknowledged the Legislature’s role of being the voice of the people while saying that the courts speak in a more limited way in resolving legal disputes.

He told lawmakers that the courts have great respect for them “derived from your devoted service but because you speak and act for the people of Iowa.”

Lawmakers last year changed the rules for choosing justices, giving Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds more control over the process, a move that critics said politicized the court.

Some conservative lawmakers have derisively referred to “activist judges” when complaining about court rulings they don’t like, including recent Iowa Supreme Court rulings overturning abortion restrictions and a ban on using Medicaid funding for gender reassignment surgery.

Wiggins rejected that characterization as he spoke to reporters after the speech.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court told the city of Chicago that they can’t have an ordinance to ban guns when a majority of the people and the majority of the council voted to do it, was the U.S. Supreme Court activist?” he said. “I think we have to do what we need to do, and the Legislature and the governor needs to do what they think are right and the government will endure.”

Wiggins became chief justice after Mark Cady’s died in November of a heart attack. Wiggins noted that some of the ideas in the speech were Cady’s.

Wiggins, one of two remaining Democratic appointees, announced last week that he plans to retire in March. He said he was preparing to leave a year ago, but Justice Daryl Hecht became ill and left the court after he was diagnosed with skin cancer. Hecht died in April 2019.

“I promised him I’d stick around and take care of some things, so I did it and I kept my word and now I’m ready to move on,” Wiggins said.

The top Iowa court is now dominated by Republican appointees. Two were appointed by Reynolds. She also will be naming a justice to replace Cady and will be naming Wiggins’ replacement once he leaves the bench.

In budget documents provided by the state court administrator, the judiciary is requesting a 3.95% increase in funding for fiscal year 2021. That would bring the court’s budget to $188.7 million.

The request includes adding 17 workers in county court clerk offices, four district court judges and 12 staff members including court reporters and law clerks “to address increasing workload and provide more timely resolution of Iowans’ disputes.”

Another requested increase would provide an additional $250,000 to the fund that pays jurors their daily compensation and pays for interpreters and witness reimbursement.

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