2022 State of the Judiciary

Jan 12, 2022  | 46 min  | Ep 2022



Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the General Assembly, Governor
Reynolds, Lt. Governor Gregg, state officials, colleagues, family, friends and all
Iowans who are, once again, watching remotely or here in person.
Thank you for the opportunity to address this joint convention of the 89th
General Assembly on the condition of the judiciary.
As introduced, I am Suzy Christensen. I continue to live in Harlan with my
husband of 40 years, Jay. He is with me today as well as four of our five children
and a couple of our grandchildren.
Last year, I gave my first condition of the judiciary. Not only did I mix up
naming the two guys behind me...but much to my family’s amusement, I messed
up naming my own grandchildren. I would like to stop their ruthless teasing and
fix that monumental boo boo right now: Logan, Karsyn, Connor, Emily, Jack,
Levi (last year’s forgotten child) and our newest addition, Grayson.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “HOPE is the thing with feathers.” It’s like a
feathered bird forever perched in the soul of every human. You may remember
that I started and ended last year’s speech on the theme of HOPE. At that point,
we were not yet one year into this pandemic. Emotions were swirling in every
direction—frustration, anger and a paralyzing fear just to name a few. We were
learning to adapt to unprecedented circumstances, and my intent was to send a
positive message—to let the people of Iowa know that the judiciary did not
succumb to COVID-19 and we remained open for business to ensure continued
access to justice.

This year, I’d like to make PEACE the theme of my Condition of the
Judiciary. It’s been said that PEACE does not mean to be in a place where there
is no noise, trouble or hard work. No. Peace means to be in the midst of those
things and still be calm in your heart.
While leading the judiciary during a pandemic that is now entering its
third year, acquiring a sense of peace has been absolutely critical for me. I’d like
to share with you a story about finding peace amongst the noise, trouble and
hard work that comes along with life’s challenges.
I’ve told this story in only a couple quaint settings as a way of showing the
importance of stick-to-itiveness. But it seems appropriate today for a larger
audience because of the pandemic times we’re experiencing and the temptation
to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore” when there is very important work yet
to be done.
As you may know, my oldest son, Nic was diagnosed with cerebral palsy
at the age of two. During adolescence, Nic’s heart was full of wishes, but hands
down—number one was to drive a car. Like every other kid.
So we signed him up for regular driver’s ed and took him to Omaha for a
special driver’s ed that would help him learn to drive with hand controls. On July
13, 1998—his 16th birthday—I took him to a driver’s license station outside
Shelby County because our hometown office wasn’t open for licensing that day.
We took a number and waited. And waited. And waited...while other people
came and went. I started to smell a rat. I went to the front desk and asked, “Is
there a problem?” at which time I learned they were waiting for someone to take

Nic for a test drive. I called ahead of time and was told he wouldn’t have to drive.
And we didn’t have his car with hand controls. I whispered so Nic wouldn’t hear,
“May I see your supervisor?” I went into her office alone and asked why she was
requiring Nic to drive. She said, “Because we can all see he’s handicapped.” I
knew at that moment I wanted to pounce...like a lawyer. But I was there as Nic’s
mom. I put on my sunglasses, to hide my tears, and walked out of her office. I
headed over to Nic and said, “Come on bud.” He said, with his chin quivering,
“Am I not getting my license today?” “No buddy, not today.”
It was a painfully quiet ride on the way home. Neither one of us said a
word. I knew what just happened was BIG and we needed to talk about it. So I
pulled over. “Nic, are you okay with what happened back there?” He slowly shook
his head no. I told him that if he was my client, I would have said more, but I
didn’t want to embarrass him. Nic said, “I like it when you fight for me.” Okay. I
was just hired. And this was the legal advice I gave my new client:
If something like this ever happens to you again, I want you to:
(1) Say “That’s not fair.” Everyone knows what that means.
(2) Ask the person, “What’s your name?”
(3) Call me.
Although Nic was very aware of his own diagnosis, cerebral palsy was not
something our family ever talked about. It was just a normal part of our lives.
But I decided to ask him something I never dared ask before. “Nic, what is the
hardest part about having CP?” I made a conscientious effort to keep my mouth
shut, to not answer for him. He looked straight ahead and pondered, for maybe

45 or 60 seconds. That’s a really, really long time when you’re waiting for an
During that pause, my mind raced...what will he say? Maybe that he can’t
walk independently? Or that he talks different than everyone else? Or how about
having the driver’s license lady literally crush his dream right before his eyes? He
finally turned to me and said, “I can’t think of anything.”
He couldn’t think of one thing that’s hard about having CP. And I was ready
to fill his head with a bunch of negative things. Up to that day, we tackled one
day at a time. Some of those days were unremarkable, others were a nightmare
like the day he turned 16 years old. But Nic’s response, “I can’t think of anything”
gave me a sudden and palpable sense of PEACE amidst a storm that continues
to rage even today. If I ever had a doubt before—and I had many—for the first
time, I truly believed, “We are going to get through this, Nic.”
You might wonder what my story about Nic has to do with the Condition
of the Judiciary. Today, as I look in the judicial branch’s 2021 rear view mirror,
I sense a similar feeling of PEACE in the midst of ongoing challenges.
COVID has had an abrupt and brutal impact on the judiciary. Last year,
we spent most of the year trying to figure out new ways to perform basic
fundamental tasks in our quest to provide Iowan’s access to justice. Another year
has now passed. What’s different? Not only did everyone in the judicial branch
get really good at handling the daily challenges that once nearly threw us under
the bus, but we got stronger. We got better. And you can feel it. We are not on
auto pilot, but there is certainly a sense of calmness, a sense of peace.

Each and every one of our judicial branch members has been a profile of
what it takes to work effectively in a crisis and move us to this profound sense
of peace within our branch. A sense of, “We can get through anything” even in
the midst of this COVID storm that continues to rage.
We were also able to accomplish many great things this past year because
you, our legislature, provided us with a steadier platform on which to base Iowa’s
administration of justice by increasing our funding. On behalf of the entire
judiciary, thank you.
Here are just a few highlights of the 2021 judicial branch accomplishments
as the pandemic continued to swirl around most every aspect of our lives. These
accomplishments helped to ensure all Iowans would have continued access to
our judicial branch. A more detailed summary can be found in our Annual
Report which was released just today.
You may recall that last year I talked about a distributive work pilot
program coming out of the 1st and 4th judicial districts where work from one
busier county is shared with judicial branch employees in a less busy county in
the same district. Like I said then, for one county to be able to assist another
county in need within the same district keeps each county relevant—no matter
the size. We expanded those pilots and today, I am excited to report that all eight
judicial districts have either begun distributive work processing or are in the
final stages of implementing such a plan.
Something else that has had uniform application across the state involves
much needed improvements in our courtrooms. When I was a trial judge, one of

the most common complaints made by jurors in virtually every trial was that
they could not hear well in the courtroom. They had trouble hearing witnesses
testify or lawyers make their closing arguments. The problem wasn’t their
hearing—it had to do with poor acoustics in big, old courtrooms. It is incredibly
concerning if a juror cannot hear every word uttered during a trial.
Something pretty cool happened to address that problem. Through the use
of Iowa CARES funding, new technology was installed in nearly every courthouse
across the state. This technology does more than allow us to hold virtual
hearings with video-conferencing. One of the bells that came with this new
technology is a sound system and strategically placed microphones which
enhance the ability for jurors to hear clearly. One of the whistles that came along
is an evidence presentation capability which allows jurors to clearly view exhibits
rather than having hard copies passed through the jury box. The benefits of this
technology made available with CARES funding will be utilized by every county
and certainly last years beyond COVID.
During the last Condition of the Judiciary, I detailed the steps the judicial
branch has taken to ensure that all persons are treated equally before the law. I
also assured you that the judicial branch would remain steadfast in its
commitment in identifying and implementing tools that will assist us in
becoming better public servants. In 2021, that monumental journey continued.
All Iowans should be proud that the judicial branch is taking active steps
to become a leader when it comes to research and education on issues related to
procedural fairness and access to justice. Given the educational investments

we’ve already made, the judicial branch is well-positioned to continue our role
as a leader in the area of educating judges and court personnel. Of course,
leadership requires making sober assessments concerning what needs are not
being met.
In 2021, we recognized that in order for us to continue to properly serve
the people of this great state, we need to develop a more comprehensive
educational curriculum for judges and judicial branch employees. These
educational opportunities would embrace a full range of adult learning. Issues
related to race and disproportionality will remain critical components of our
educational curriculum.
Simply put, expanding the range of educational opportunities for judicial
officers and judicial branch staff will help enable the judicial branch to achieve
our mission of administering justice under the law equally to all people, whether
you live in Polk County or Page County.
Starting in July, and for the first time since becoming chief, I began
traveling to our eight judicial districts. I wanted to personally listen to the many
voices of our legal profession in this great state. I asked local lawyers and judges,
“What are we doing well? What could we do better? What should I take back to
Des Moines?” My sojourn took me to Dubuque, Mason City, Sioux City, Council
Bluffs, Des Moines, Indianola, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ottumwa, Fairfield and
Speaking of Oskaloosa, Justice Waterman, Justice Oxley and I were
invited to attend the Mahaska County Bar’s weekly lunch. With the exception of

Thanksgiving, they have been meeting for lunch every single Thursday...since
well before FDR was President of the United States. Garold Heslinga has been a
card-carrying member of the Mahaska County Bar since 1948. Interesting little
fact for legal nerds like myself...Mr. Heslinga was the prevailing attorney in the
spring-gun case of Katko v. Briney...a staple of most every law school tort class.
Each and every town or city I visited was deeply committed to honoring
the legal profession and proud to show off their stomping grounds. What I
learned through these visits will equip me with a deeper understanding of what
Iowan’s from every corner of our state need from the judiciary to ensure access
to justice.
One of the reasons I wanted to get out to the districts was because the
judicial branch was beginning to plan for a post COVID-19 world. We reviewed
about 30 formal COVID orders entered by our court and considered the
numerous informal policies and practices that had popped up across the state.
Did it make sense to simply unwind our orders in an effort to get back to normal?
Maybe not. Some of the emergency changes ended up being really good changes
that might not have ever happened if the pandemic hadn’t forced our hand.
In an effort to evaluate what changes were made in the prior year, the
Lessons Learned Task Force was established by the supreme court. I fondly refer
to this as the Lemonade Task Force. The task force was made up of
representatives such as court reporters, district court and state court
administration, trial court and appellate judges, clerks of court, and attorneys
in private practice as well as county attorneys and the state public defender’s

office. They were tasked with reviewing all of the supervisory orders and making
recommendations to the supreme court on rules, policies or practices that
should be retained, modified or stopped.
The task force submitted its recommendations to the supreme court. After
careful review of the task force’s recommendations, public comments and
considering the current status of the pandemic, on December 6th we entered one
COVID order to replace all of the earlier orders.
This omnibus order recognizes the court system is 100 percent fully
operational, but we are continuing some practices adopted on an emergency
basis when the pandemic started. These practices not only keep court
proceedings moving along but allow people to participate in a meaningful way
without jeopardizing health or conflicting with work schedules.
Here are a few examples of what’s included in the court’s December 6th
omnibus order which balances the need for efficiency with the value of doing
business in person:
In criminal cases, the defendant does not have to appear at certain pretrial
proceedings or depositions, and sentencing can go forward with parties
appearing by remote video technology. Juvenile courts may conduct proceedings
such as child in need of assistance and termination of parental rights by
videoconference. In family law matters, courts may conduct divorce or custody
trials by videoconference as needed.
It is clear from a review of the lemonade task force’s recommendations that
there was a heavy reliance on the significant work being done by the criminal

rules committee already in place pre-pandemic. This month the court is also
approving and sending to Legislative Council a comprehensive revision of the
rules governing all criminal cases in Iowa. Since the current rules came into
effect nearly 44 years ago, they have undergone piecemeal amendments but no
comprehensive review. In the words of Justice Mansfield who chaired the task
force reviewing our criminal rules, this piecemeal approach resulted in our rules
becoming somewhat “wordy, out of date and hodge-podgy.”
The comprehensive revision is the work product of a task force made up
of prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers from around the state as well as
representation from Drake and Iowa law schools.
The proposed rules are streamlined and fill in some gaps where the old
rules didn’t reflect what is actually being done in court. A few substantive
changes are recommended by the committee, but only where there was
consensus between prosecution and defense that the change would be an
improvement. Many of those substantive changes are the result of lessons
learned during COVID and would make permanent some of the language
included in the criminal portion of our December 6th supervisory order.
Right about the time our criminal rules task force began winding down its
four-year project, we threw other court rules into the hopper for review. In
particular, Justice Oxley is chairing a task force charged with reviewing our rules
of appellate procedure, and Justice Waterman is chairing a task force charged
with reviewing our rules of evidence. I look forward to updating you on the work
of those newer task forces when their reviews are completed.

You may remember last year, I announced that juvenile justice is my
priority as chief. In particular, I am committed to ensuring that Iowa stands out
among all the other states in implementing Family First, a federal funding bill
based on the belief that kids do best with their families. I am so thrilled to stand
up here today and say...we can start to check that box off.
The 4 Questions, 7 Judges program catapulted from pilot status to
statewide implementation based on its proven effectiveness at cutting removals
by nearly half. There is now talk about asking specific questions not only at the
time of removal but at two other critical points in a child welfare case: (1) after a
child is actually removed; and (2) once the family is reunited. An example of what
kind of question could be asked at those critical stages came from one of our
outstanding colleagues, the late Judge Colin Witt. In his courtroom, Judge Witt
began asking, “Why can’t this child go home today?” The Witt Question has
begun to spread across the state...perhaps it will become a pilot program of its
We’re not the only ones impressed by the 4 Questions program. Street
Roots is an Oregon publication dedicated to the topic of homelessness and
extreme poverty. About two months ago, an article was published called “Foster
Care Shuffle.” The focus of this article was Iowa’s 4 Questions, 7 Judges program
because it was showing evidence of success in reducing the number of moves for
kids in foster care. Other states were encouraged to replicate Iowa’s program.
And apparently that’s happening, because we continue to field calls from other
states who are attempting to adopt a similar program.

And the judicial branch isn’t alone in its mission to keep Iowa’s children
in the home, with family, whenever it can be done safely. As a part of Family
First implementation, the department of human services took the lead on a
review of Iowa’s juvenile justice legislation found in Iowa Code Chapter 232 and
proposing code changes to comply with Family First requirements. I thank DHS
for beginning this conversation and I assure you that the Judicial Branch is
committed to working with all stakeholders to implement Family First.
I’d like to end my speech by sharing with you something truly exciting that
will be happening in the not so distant future. I think it’s going to have a
profound impact on Iowa’s entire juvenile justice system.
In Iowa, our juvenile justice system is made up of two different kinds of
judicial proceedings for children. In child welfare cases, it is the court’s job to
protect the child from the actions of someone else, sadly—that is usually a close
family member. You may have heard of a CINA proceeding which is short for
Child in Need of Assistance. In those cases, the court relies heavily on the
expertise and attention of the Department of Human Services in trying to keep
kids in their family home or reunite the family after they have been provided
rehabilitative services.
A second kind of juvenile proceeding involves delinquency cases. In those
cases, it is the court’s job to protect society from the criminal acts of a child. In
those types of cases, the court relies heavily on the expertise and attention of
juvenile court probation officers in supervising the child and providing
rehabilitative services.

Oftentimes, children are living in both of those worlds—CINA and
delinquency—where the child’s parents cannot provide a safe home and the child
has acted out in a way that has resulted in criminal charges being filed.
It has been almost 30 years since Iowa's juvenile justice system has had a
comprehensive, holistic review. Unlike nearly every other state, our juvenile
justice system is decentralized with its services, governance, funding and data
collection divided among four different entities: (1) the judicial branch; (2) the
department of human services; (3) the department of human rights; and (4) the
department of public health.
In the past few years, stakeholders implemented various programs
intended to improve the juvenile justice system from their perspective. While
well intentioned, those individualized improvements oftentimes have unintended
ripples throughout the system.
The Iowa Supreme Court recently established a Juvenile Justice Task
Force to review the continuum of care in our juvenile justice system and make
recommendations to improve services, governance, funding and data collection
as well as address the system's racial and gender disparities. Task force
members are made up all kinds of experts in the juvenile justice world such as
service providers, law enforcement, judges, juvenile court officers, county
attorneys, public defenders, private attorneys, youth and family members as well
as the four state entities I mentioned earlier. Knowing that the recommendations
may very well include revisions to our current laws, we are honored to have
legislators on our task force as well. Thank you, Senator Cournoyer, Senator

Ragan, Representative Mohr and Representative Wessel-Kroeschell for agreeing
to serve on this very important task force. The work of this task force could not
be completed without staff support which is bring provided by Creighton, Drake
and Iowa law schools.
It is our plan to release a task force report in November of this year, so stay
tuned...I’m sure it will be mentioned in next year’s Condition of the Judiciary.
I promised this was the end of my speech—sharing the exciting news about
the newly formed Juvenile Justice Task Force. But I’d like to add a P.S.
Remember Shawn and his journey through family treatment court? In
preparation for today’s speech, of course I had to check in with him. I learned
that he is in the process of buying his first home ever. And of course I asked him,
how many days of sobriety? As of today, that number is 1,396 (4 months shy of
4 years). Shawn and his son, Rylan, are here today with Shawn’s twin brother,
Jason. Once again, thank you, Shawn, for allowing me to share your story of
HOPE and how Iowa’s judicial branch provided a path for your enduring sobriety.
In closing, I want to thank my colleagues for their commitment to our work
and to the legislature for its support of our work and for giving me this
opportunity to speak with you today.
As chief, I look forward to providing Iowans with a sense of PEACE that
we’ve got this. The judicial branch will continue to block out all the noise brought
on by the pandemic and stay laser focused on our steadfast commitment to
ensure that each and every Iowan has meaningful access to justice.

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