Let’s begin where most court cases begin—with the district courts. The district court, which is also known as the trial court, is the point of entry in the court system for most cases. The Iowa District Court has general jurisdiction of all civil, criminal, juvenile, and probate matters in the state. The Iowa district court is composed of different kinds of judicial officers with varying amounts of jurisdiction: judicial magistrates, associate juvenile judges, associate probate judges, district associate judges, and district court judges.
Every county is assigned at least one judicial magistrate position although the magistrate may reside in a contiguous county. Judicial magistrates may hear cases in other counties upon order of the chief judge of the district. Magistrates are required to be attorneys and have jurisdiction over simple misdemeanors, including scheduled violations, county and municipal infractions, and small claims. Magistrates have authority to issue search warrants, conduct preliminary hearings, and hear certain involuntary hospitalization matters. Magistrates serve four-year terms and are appointed by county magistrate appointing commissions.
The jurisdiction of associate juvenile judges is limited to juvenile court matters. They have authority to issue orders, findings, and decisions in juvenile cases, including cases that involve juvenile delinquency, child in need of assistance, and termination of parental rights. Associate juvenile judges also have authority to preside over adoptions. Associate juvenile judges serve six-year terms. They are appointed by the district judges of the judicial district from a slate of nominees screened and selected by the county magistrate appointing commission.
Associate probate judges have jurisdiction limited to probate cases. They have authority to audit accounts and perform judicial duties in probate as prescribed by the chief judge. Associate probate judges serve six-year terms. They are appointed by the district judges of the judicial district from a slate of nominees screened and selected by the county magistrate appointing commission.
District associate judges have the jurisdiction of judicial magistrates plus authority to hear serious and aggravated misdemeanor cases, civil suits in which the amount in controversy is $10,000 or less, and juvenile cases when the judge is sitting as a juvenile judge. District associate judges are appointed by the district judges of the judicial district from a slate of nominees screened and selected by the county magistrate appointing commission. Their term is six years.
District judges have the authority to hear any type of case within the district court. District court judges typically hear a variety of cases including probate, felony criminal cases, dissolution of marriage, adoptions, disputes involving actions of state administrative agencies, juvenile cases and other matters. Many district judges travel extensively to make sure all of Iowa’s counties have a regular schedule of judicial service. District judges are appointed by the governor from a slate of nominees chosen by the judicial election district nominating commission. Their term of office is six years.
District Court Support Personnel
All judges serve the public by using their legal skills and knowledge to impartially interpret and apply the laws. Their role is crucial, but their ability to perform this role effectively in today’s complicated and litigious society requires the support of a professional staff.
In each of Iowa's 99 counties, a clerk of district court office manages and maintains all trial court records filed in the county. Clerks of court have hundreds of administrative duties some of which include:
· Accepting and processing fines, fees and court costs owed to the state, child support checks, and civil judgments owed to litigants
· Maintaining a record of liens on real estate
· Disposing of scheduled violations that are not contested and do not require a court hearing
· Notifying state and local government agencies, including law enforcement agencies, of court orders
Court attendants have a variety of duties, such as overseeing the activities of jurors, facilitating courtroom proceedings, and helping judges with clerical work.
Court reporters serve an important court function. Court reporters record everything that is said in the courtroom. Their transcription, which is a precise and accurate account of the court proceedings, becomes part of the official court record.
Juvenile court officers work directly with young people who are accused of committing a delinquent act. The function of a juvenile court officer is somewhat analogous to a probation officer for adult offenders. Juvenile court officers and their staff keep track of children who are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. They check on a young person’s progress with treatment and restitution. Juvenile court officers also administer "informal adjustment programs" for youths who are not formally charged with delinquency but who still require some form of supervision to ensure accountability.
Iowa’s Appellate Courts
As the name suggests, appellate courts handle appeals—-requests from litigants for a trial court decision to be heard by a higher court. There are two appellate courts in Iowa’s judicial system—the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals.
Seven justices sit on the supreme court and nine judges form the court of appeals. All appellate judges are appointed by the governor from a slate of nominees selected by the state judicial nominating commission. Supreme court justices serve eight-year terms. Appellate court judges serve six-year terms.
All appeals are to the Iowa Supreme Court. However, the supreme court may transfer a case to the Iowa Court of Appeals for consideration.
In addition to deciding cases, the Iowa Supreme Court is responsible for licensing and disciplining attorneys, promulgating rules of procedure and practice used throughout the state courts, and overseeing the operation of the entire state court system.
Appellate Court Support Personnel
The Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals are assisted by the Clerk of the Supreme Court. The clerk is responsible for maintaining the records in all appeals.
Each court of appeals judge and supreme court justice has clerical support as well as a law clerk to assist with legal research. Staff lawyers also assist the court of appeals with its case work. In addition, screening attorneys help the supreme court sift through the appeals and dispose of hundreds of motions that are filed by litigants.
Retired judges can apply to the Iowa Supreme Court for assignment as a senior judge in the district or appellate courts. A senior judge receives an enhanced retirement benefit and annual stipend in exchange for working at least thirteen weeks a year. Senior judges assist at every level of the court system. Their service helps the judicial branch keep up with its high volume of cases.
Iowa Judicial Branch Administrative Structure
Iowa is one of a handful of states that has a unified court system that is mostly state funded. As the head of the state court system, the Iowa Supreme Court oversees a statewide operating budget of approximately $150 million and is ultimately responsible for about 1,750 employees and judges.
The State Court Administrator assists the court with this enormous responsibility. The State Court Administrator’s duties include gathering statistical data for the Iowa Judicial Branch, arranging training and education programs for judges and staff, overseeing all aspects of the day-to-day operation of the state’s court system.
For purposes of administration, Iowa is divided into eight judicial districts. The districts, which vary in population and in size, are determined by the legislature. Each district is headed by a chief judge who is selected by the Iowa Supreme Court. The chief judge is responsible for overseeing all district operations and personnel.
Each chief judge is assisted by a district court administrator. District court administrators handle the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the financial and personnel matters of the district, as well as case scheduling.
The Judicial Council advises the supreme court with respect to the supervision and administration of the judicial branch. The council consists of the chief judges of the districts, the chief judge of the court of appeals and the chief justice of the supreme court.
Finally, dozens of committees assist with the administration of justice in Iowa. The courts depend on these committees to regularly advise them on a broad scope of topics, including rules of procedure, technology, planning, child support guidelines, and most aspects of attorney regulation. Committees are composed not only of judges, lawyers, and court staff, but also of Iowans from many walks of life, who bring a valuable perspective to the administration of justice.