July 24, 2017

It will take twice as long for some low-level court cases to conclude in Carroll County starting next month when the county loses one of its two magistrate judges.

“It’s going to result in more delays,” said Eric Neu, who has been a Carroll magistrate since 1999 and will be the lone magistrate in the county starting Aug. 1. “There’s only so much time you can spend on this stuff.”

State courts officials review the workloads of each of Iowa’s 99 counties every four years and decide how to divide the equivalent of 206 magistrates among those counties. The total number of magistrates is set by state law.

The workloads are judged by a formula based on the number of small-claims filings, misdemeanor filings, initial criminal appearances, search-warrant filings and adult committal petitions each county handles, on-average, in each of the past three years, said John Goerdt, the deputy state court administrator.

More than half of the state’s counties have just one magistrate, and Carroll’s workload lies near the threshold for which a county should have two.

Courts officials have been threatening to cut the number of Carroll magistrates ever since Neu was appointed, Neu said.

The tenure of Chris Polking, a Carroll magistrate who was first appointed in 2008, will end next week. He said he will spend more time working at his private law firm in Carroll.

Polking was nominated this year to be a district court judge — they handle high-level criminal cases, among others — but was not appointed. He applied for the remaining magistrate job in Carroll, but the county’s appointing commission chose Neu, who has been a magistrate for about twice as many years as Polking.

Crawford County, the western neighbor of Carroll, will also lose one of its two magistrates next week. None of Carroll’s other surrounding counties has two.

Neu has a reciprocal agreement with David Morain, the magistrate in Greene County, to cover for each other when they’re not available for court work.

Carroll County Attorney John Werden, who prosecutes criminal cases, said the cut might delay the approval of search warrants, among other effects it might have on law enforcement. Law officers must meet with magistrates in person to get those approvals, and because Carroll resides in the southwest corner of its judicial district, officers are limited to which counties they can travel for the approvals, he said.

“It’s just one more kick in the teeth from the legislature, which refused to appropriately fund the judicial branch,” Neu said.

State courts officials have complained for years that lawmakers have underfunded the judicial system. Budget woes forced courts workers to take an unpaid furlough day in May, and in recent years clerks of court offices have scaled back the hours they are open to the public.

Republican lawmakers approved more than $100 million in budget cuts for next fiscal year, and state analysts projected recently a budget shortfall of about $100 million for this fiscal year.

The lack of legislative support for the state’s judicial system has affected counties big and small. Carroll is among 10 smaller counties that will lose a magistrate next week. And even though Polk County, the largest in the state, will gain three, it is still seven shy of what the state formula says it should have.