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Iowa chief justice says paperless push years ago helped in pandemic

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen says the state’s court system has been upended by the pandemic.

“It’s been turned on its head for almost a year,” Christensen said this morning. “We can’t just shut our doors and say: ‘See you when things get better.’ It’s not like people have a choice to come do business with us. We tend to do something called subpoena and summons.”

Christensen said the system is functioning, though, because the courts embraced paperless technology years ago.

“Like most everyone else in 2020, we went virtual,” Christensen said. “Thank goodness our branch had the foresight 15 years ago to plan and implement an electronic filing system which allows us to be paperless and thank goodness for you, our legislature, for making sure that we had adequate funding and maintaining that adequate funding to keep our technological infrastructure.”

Christensen delivered the annual “Condition of the Judiciary” address to legislators Wednesday. Her fellow justices elected Christensen to serve as chief justice last spring and this was her first major public address. She briefed legislators on the plan to have all court employees be trained to recognize implicit biases against people based on race, gender and what she referred to as “other identified protected classes.”

“As public servants, our task is as simple as it is solemn: to provide justice without fear, favor or affection,” Christensen said. “…Over the past six years, the judicial branch has dedicated itself to implementing initiatives that are designed to identify and eliminate discriminatory behaviors, behaviors that may compound the disparities present in our system of justice as a whole.”

Christensen told legislators her current priority is steering the court system through the final months of the pandemic, then she spent the remaining 15 minutes of her speech focused on child welfare cases in the courts. Christensen talked extensively about a western Iowa man who has been drug-free for more than a thousand days and regained custody of his child. The man and his family were in the Capitol for Christensen’s speech and Christensen led legislators in an extended standing ovation.

“It’s stories like Shawn’s that continue to give me hope for the work of our judicial branch,” Christensen said. “By adapting to the unprecedented circumstances that we faced this year, we have proven hope cannot be canceled. Hope cannot be kept at six feet distance. We will continue to provide Iowans with the access to justice they need to turn their hopes into reality.”

Christensen presented a report to lawmakers Wednesday showing 72 percent of the children involved in family treatment court cases returned to the home of a parent or caregiver within a year of the adult entering that court program.

(Photos and video courtesy Iowa PBS)


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