SIOUX CITY | Already down two judges, Leesa McNeil's receipt of another judge's notice of retirement was not welcome news, though she knew District Judge John Ackerman had been considering it.
The announcement that Ackerman will step down in December from the district court bench and take senior status, working 13 weeks a year, will leave its mark on a district already feeling the effects of a hiring freeze ordered by the Iowa Supreme Court in response to budget cuts.
The soon-to-be three vacancies on the District 3 bench add to 13 other vacant judicial system positions in the district. Two other vacancies soon will be created in the district due to retirement, including McNeil's in January.
"There is a limit to what you can do with the resources you have. We're reaching a breaking point," said McNeil, who will be retiring after 32 years as the 3rd District Court Administrator. Her position will be left open until the hiring freeze is lifted or modified.
The Supreme Court enacted the freeze, along with a one-day unpaid furlough for court workers, earlier this year to clear budget space after the Legislature, facing a $117 million state budget shortfall, passed a $3 million budget reduction to the state's judicial branch for the final four months of the fiscal year. When the Legislature appropriated $175 million to the judicial branch for Fiscal Year 2018, the same level as the previous fiscal year after the budget reduction, the high court extended the hiring freeze to the current fiscal year, which ends May 31.
Fortunately, the decree included a provision that any judicial district won't be left with more than one judicial vacancy. It's good news for the 3B subdistrict, which includes Woodbury, Sioux, Plymouth, Ida, Monona and Crawford counties. District Judge Edward Jacobson retired earlier this month, and with Ackerman stepping down from full-time duty in December, the subdistrict would have been short two judges of its maximum allotment of eight.
McNeil said the application and nomination process to seek Jacobson's replacement will begin soon. It's about a four-month process.
"We are hopeful we will have a person in a chair and ready to work by mid January," McNeil said.
When it comes to scheduling, McNeil said she's essentially two judges short now because long-term cases can't be assigned to Ackerman.
"Some things are having to get pushed out a little farther than we would like," McNeil said.
She said trials are getting "pushed back and bunched up" as time-sensitive matters such as mental health commitments, family custody cases, juvenile cases and criminal case deadlines take priority.
The 3A subdistrict, which includes Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, Lyon, Kossuth, O'Brien, Osceola and Palo Alto counties, also is operating short one judge from its maximum allocation of five after District Judge Patrick Carr retired in July. That vacancy, too, has led to challenges in scheduling court hearings.
"We've had to make schedule practice adjustments," McNeil said. "We are trying to limit the impacts to litigants."