Buildings for Justice in Polk County
by Arthur E. Gamble, Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial District of Iowa
On behalf of the Fifth Judicial District, let me take this opportunity to express our gratitude to the Polk County Bar Association for your support of the exciting building projects for justice in Polk County. They will significantly improve the safety, security and effectiveness of our court facilities for generations of Iowans and Polk County residents to come. I also want to inform you of some challenges to completing this project on time and to enlist your continuing help to convince the Iowa General Assembly of our need for state funding.
In 1906, the Polk County Courthouse opened for official business, housing four courtrooms and all of the county offices. Over the next 109 years, the county gradually relocated its offices as the courts grew in size, taking over the courthouse. Today, this century-old courthouse is by far the busiest county building in Iowa but it is entirely occupied by a branch of state government rent free. 31 judicial officers and 206 state employees occupy every nook and cranny. More than 25,000 people a month enter the courthouse to access justice. Over 8,000 jurors a year are summoned to the courthouse to participate in approximately 150 jury trials. These jurors often sit on the floor because the jury assembly area is too small to accommodate them. The judges of Polk County conduct hundreds more non-jury proceedings annually. Unfortunately, this beautiful old facility is obsolete, overcrowded, and unsafe for the business of a modern metropolitan court. Most of the furniture and equipment is worn out. Many of the desks and chairs are antiques.
Under a plan proposed by the Board of Supervisors in 2013, more than 60% of voters in Polk County approved an $81 million bond referendum for the construction of court facilities that will comply with the latest fire and life safety codes and court security measures. This plan preserves the iconic Polk County Courthouse as a place of justice for future generations of Iowans. At the same time, it relieves chronic overcrowding, safety and security problems that have plagued court users for decades through a thoughtful and responsible use of taxpayer money. The community at large and individual citizens seeking justice in our courts will be well served by Polk County’s plan for safe and secure courts. This plan solves longstanding problems of safety, security and overcrowding that will not go away without decisive action. This plan serves the long term best interests of the State of Iowa.
This plan also gets Polk County out of expensive leases that cost property taxpayers more than half a million dollars a year. These leased facilities include a warehouse for the Clerk of Court Records Division and office space for our suburban traffic and small claims courts occupied by six part-time magistrates and their staff. This money will be better spent paying for court facilities that the county will own; not rent. Ultimately, by renovating three existing county owned buildings in four phases over five years, the average cost to property taxpayers will be reduced compared to the cost of new construction. Phase I of the project, the restoration of the exterior of the historic courthouse, is already complete. The beautification of the courthouse is a visible and tangible sign of the commitment of county taxpayers to progress.
Through a land swap, Polk County made a down payment on this project reducing the debt to be financed by bonds. Polk County acquired the Wellmark/JC Penney Building across the street to the north of the courthouse. The footprint of this three story building covers half a city block. Phase II of the plan is currently under construction and is transforming this former department store/office building into a modern justice center for juvenile, traffic and small claims court. The Polk County Attorney’s office occupies the third floor and some space on the first floor. Juvenile Court will be located on the second floor along with the Juvenile Division of the Clerk’s Office. Traffic and small claims court will be on the first floor with an associated Clerk’s office. Juvenile Court Services and the Clerk of Court’s Records Division will be housed in the lower level. 30 juvenile court officers, six magistrates, seven district associate judges, and support staff will move to the Justice Center. Four courtrooms will remain unfinished to accommodate future growth.
The Justice Center will have a positive impact on the lives of children and families in Iowa. The Justice Center will have separate zones of circulation so that juveniles detained for delinquency proceedings will no longer be escorted through the halls of the courthouse in public view donned with chains and blue jump suits. The new facility will have appropriate children’s waiting areas so victims of child abuse and neglect will no longer have to wait in the same halls with adults accused of abusing them. There will be conference space for private meetings with juveniles, parents, lawyers, juvenile court officers and social workers all for the benefit of children. The juvenile courts will be separated from adult criminal court so that children and families will no longer share corridors and waiting space with adults charged with violent crimes. The courtrooms will be of a size and configuration appropriate for children’s justice. The Justice Center is scheduled to open in the spring of 2016.
Phase III will renovate the obsolete downtown jail west of the courthouse into a five-story state of the art Criminal Courts Building. The footprint of the building will cover approximately one half of a city block. Each floor will have space for three courtrooms. Our high volume misdemeanor and felony courts will occupy this new space. The courtrooms attended by the highest numbers of people will be located on the lower floors. The trial courtrooms will be on the upper floors. The Criminal Courts Building will have three separate zones of circulation for the public, court staff and inmates so that prisoners in green striped suits and shackles will no longer share public corridors with jurors, witnesses, lawyers, judges and citizens attending court. The existing sally port will lead to a holding facility in the lower level with secure elevators, waiting rooms, deposition rooms, and corridors so that prisoners can be transported to court safely. Inmates will await court in holding cells off of each courtroom. There will be ample secure attorney-client conference areas in these facilities so that lawyers can have private conversations with their clients instead of speaking with their clients in the courtroom as is the practice today. Negotiation and staging areas will be located outside of the high volume courtrooms to remove plea discussions from the courtroom enhancing the decorum of court proceedings. The modern courtrooms will be of a sufficient size so that criminal matters can be tried efficiently and justly. The Criminal Division of the Clerk’s Office, six district associate judges, four district judges and staff will move into the Criminal Courts Building. The fifth floor and one courtroom on the third floor will remain unfinished in anticipation of future growth. Construction of the Criminal Courts Building will begin in 2016 upon the completion of the Justice Center. The Criminal Courts Building will open in 2017.
Phase IV will be the renovation of the historic Polk County Courthouse commencing upon the completion of the Criminal Courts Building in 2017. The historic courthouse will be rehabilitated to accommodate the 21st century demands of probate, family law and civil litigation. The civil disputes of our citizens will no longer have to be resolved in antiquated courtrooms that are too small for their trials. Overcrowding will be relieved; the building will be brought up to code; and court security will be enhanced. We will have a jury assembly area large enough to accommodate the hundreds of jurors who attend our trials every week. Our family courts will be moved from the fourth floor near the atrium railing to the first floor where they will be safe and secure. Victims of domestic violence can wait in secure waiting areas away from their alleged batters. The second and third floors will be remodeled with courtrooms large enough for civil trials equipped with modern courtroom technology. Lawyers will have appropriate conference rooms for confidential discussions with their clients instead of sharing privileged communications in crowded hallways. Citizens appearing in probate court will no longer try cases in a back office and instead will have a courtroom and proper facilities on the fourth floor for the settlement of their affairs. The Civil Division of the Clerk’s Office, court administration, thirteen district judges, one associate probate judge and support staff will remain in the courthouse. There will be chamber space to accommodate our increasing number of senior judges. Several courtrooms set aside for future growth.
This is no longer a dream. This is happening. When this project is finished in 2019, the Iowa District Court for Polk County will be housed in an integrated campus of three related court buildings thoughtfully designed to serve the public for generations to come. Each building will have an efficient floor plan including collegial judge’s chambers and unassigned courtrooms to maximize use. Wherever it is appropriate, we will re-purpose existing furniture and equipment. But most of our existing furniture is obsolete and not designed to fit in modern compact office spaces. Courtrooms of today require proper sound systems, evidence display systems and video teleconferencing equipment. Other than our existing computer equipment for electronic filing, docketing and word processing, we have no modern courtroom technology.
While the Iowa Judicial Branch is a branch of state government and judges are state officials staffed by state employees, landmark legislation signed into law by Governor Terry E. Branstad in 1983 provides that the funding of district court facilities is a shared obligation of state and county governments. Iowa Code section 602.1303 mandates that counties shall provide courtrooms, offices, and other physical facilities which in the judgment of the board of supervisors are suitable for the district court. Sections 602.1302 and 602.11101 require the costs of the judicial branch related to furnishings, supplies and equipment purchased for the use of judicial officers and staff for the operation of the court shall be paid from funds appropriated by the general assembly for the judicial branch. For courts located in the capitol city of Iowa and the county seat of Polk County, this is an expensive governmental obligation. But the safe and effective delivery of justice to the people of Iowa is a core function that both state and county government must do and should do right.
The people of Polk County have stepped up and committed to an $81 Million bond issue to make this project a reality. But here’s the challenge. Unfortunately, the State of Iowa has yet to commit to the financing of furniture and equipment required by state law so that these buildings can open on time and within budget. This project is on a tight timeline designed to save taxpayer money. The commencement of each phase of construction is dependent on the completion of the preceding one. Delay of any portion of the project risks increased costs to be borne by taxpayers.
Because of our inability to secure funding for furniture and equipment for the Justice Center in FY 2016, there is a real risk that the juvenile court facilities on the second floor of the Justice Center will not open upon its completion in the spring of 2016. Now is the time for the State of Iowa to fulfill its statutory obligations and to do its share to provide proper court facilities for the citizens of Iowa that access the Iowa Judicial Branch in Polk County.
While the judicial branch has been able to fund the state’s share of remodeling projects in smaller county courthouses out of the F&E line item of the judicial branch operating budget, a project of this size and scope cannot be handled that way because operating funds are appropriated for the salaries and services of the entire judicial branch and not large one-time infrastructure projects. Furthermore, this is not just a Polk County problem as courthouse infrastructure is aging all over the state. Voters considering bond referenda in larger counties like Johnson County or Warren County need to able to rely on the state to fund its share of furniture and equipment. Otherwise, a courthouse referendum requiring voter approval of 60% plus one is not likely to pass. Obsolete courthouses will fail and access to justice will suffer without a reliable partnership of state and county government.
So as this project is phased in over the next four years, we again seek the support of the Polk County Bar Association to advocate in the legislature for supplemental appropriations for FY 2016 and one-time infrastructure appropriations for the next three fiscal years. The cost for the State’s share of F&E for FY 16 so that the juvenile court can open on time is $2,723,151. The total cost of the State’s share of F&E over four fiscal years is $9,672,399. There is no doubt that properly outfitting the State’s largest trial court is expensive. But we ask our friends in the legislature to please keep in mind that Polk County has already committed $81,000,000 to this long overdue construction. There has been no construction of county owned court buildings in Polk County since 1906. This project is designed with growth in mind to last decades into the future. The state’s share of this one-time infrastructure is an appropriate investment in justice for the 21st Century.