Chief Justice Susan Christensen

(Des Moines) -- Like everything else, Iowa's judicial system was forced to adapt when COVID-19 shut the system down last March.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen of Harlan recapped the system's response to the continuing coronavirus pandemic during the annual Condition of the Judiciary Speech in the Iowa Legislature Wednesday morning. It was Christensen's first such speech in the position, having been selected for another two-year term last Friday. Christensen says the state's court system has been "turned on its head" because of COVID-19 for more than a year.

"We can't just shut our doors and say, 'see you when it gets better,'" said Christensen. "It's not like people have a choice to do business with us. We tend to do something called 'subpoena' or 'summons.' We don't have the luxury of sending out an invitation with an RSVP."

After trials and other in-person business in courthouses around the state were shut down due to COVID-related restrictions, Christensen says the judiciary system took steps to provide public access to legal services. The first step was going virtual.

"Thank goodness our branch had the foresight about 15 years ago to plan and implement an electronic filing system--which allows us to be paperless," she said. "And thank goodness for you, our legislature, for making sure we had adequate funding, and maintaining that adequate funding, to keep our technological infrastructure."

Christensen says safety steps were taken in courtrooms across the state when so-called "pilot trials" resumed on September 14th.

"Masks have been required for entering the court-controlled spaces," said Christensen. "Seating for the litigants has been reduced to comply with the social distancing, and if that couldn't happen, we have used Plexiglas dividers. With these accommodations, what a courtroom looks like is you have a judge, court reporter, lawyers, their clients and a jury. Some courtrooms have a little of room for the public to sit, and socially distance. Others don't. In both of those situations, there's typically another room in the courthouse that has been set up for remote viewing for the public."

Another spike in COVID cases forced another shutdown in trial activity in November. Plans call for resuming trials February 6th. Christensen says the state's court system faced other challenges in 2020. She says the state's court workers and judges showed resiliency in providing services following the August 10th derecho. Then, there were the violent protests in late May-early June following the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis.

"As public servants, our task is as simple as it is solemn--to provide justice, without fear, favor or affection," she said. "Long ago, we recognize that justice doesn't just come out of our opinions. It also is addressed in our committees, our work groups, our commissions, our rules and our task forces. Over the past six years, the judicial branch has dedicated itself to implementing initiatives that are designed to identify and eliminate discriminatory behaviors--behaviors that may compound the disparities present in our system of justice as a whole."

Heading into 2021, Christensen says all court employees will receive training to eliminate illicit bias on matters concerning race, gender and other identified protected classes.

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