Concerns emerge as loss of judge in Tama Co. approaches

Judges Ann Kuhter (left) and Richard Vander Mey (right) have served together as resident magistrate judges since 2009. In August, Vander Mey will retire from his post and the state district court system will not reappoint a second magistrate to serve Tama County. The two are pictured recently in the court room where they hear most of their cases. Darvin Graham/News Chronicle

For nearly 50 years, the district court system in Tama County has operated with two magistrate judges. This coming August, Tama County will be one of four counties having their magistrate judge allotment reduced from two judges down to one.

The change comes as part of a March administrative directive from Iowa State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio announcing the judicial magistrate apportionment, a process which occurs every four years.

Tama County, along with Iowa County, Cass County and Fayette County fell below a weighted caseload formula threshold established by the state that determines when a second magistrate judge should be allocated to a county. Currently 35 of Iowa’s 99 counties meet the threshold for a second magistrate judge.

The magistrate positions leaving the four rural counties will shift into Polk County, Linn County and Scott County; the three most populated counties in the state.

Magistrate judges hear cases of simple misdemeanors, traffic violations, county and municipal infractions and small claims.

The judges also serve a key role in the local law enforcement process by issuing search warrants, conducting preliminary hearings and hearing certain involuntary hospitalization matters such as mental health committals.

Due to the sometimes immediate nature of search warrants or mental health committals, magistrate judges are on-call throughout the year during evenings, weekends and holidays.

For the last decade, Tama County has had the luxury of both magistrate judges living within the county and in relative close proximity to local law enforcement agencies. Some rural counties, unable to recruit a local candidate to appoint to a magistrate position, will appoint someone from an adjoining county to fill the role.

Judge Ann Kuhter of Toledo has served seven terms as a magistrate judge since 1997 and Judge Richard Vander Mey of rural Clutier has served three terms since 2009.

Magistrates serve four-year terms and are appointed by county magistrate appointing commissions.

The Tama County Magistrate Appointing Commission is scheduled to meet May 21 where they will make the next four-year appointment for Tama County’s one remaining magistrate judgeship.

Vander Mey will no longer be eligible for judicial office as state regulations stipulate judge nominees must not be older than 72 years of age at any point during their term. Vander Mey turns 72 in October and will conclude his tenure Aug. 1.

Kuhter meanwhile, plans to apply for nomination to an eighth term that would run through 2025.

The challenge that will present itself, not only to the next appointed magistrate judge, but also to local law enforcement agencies is a reduced level of accessibility to a piece of the justice system at high impact moments.

“I anticipate a disaster on August 1st,” Vander Mey said. “I don’t see how there could be anything other than inequality of judicial services for the people of Tama County.”

Should Kuhter be reappointed, she would face a workload twice the size of what she’s tasked with now. Magistrate judges are also part-time employees of the state, which would inevitably leave gaps in coverage by a resident judge during times when they are off the clock.

In some instances, judges from neighboring counties could step in to help out.

A potential challenge for Tama County is its geographic position within its judicial district. Seated along the western most border of Iowa Judicial District 6, Tama County has only Benton County as an adjoining neighbor. Benton County is currently allotted two magistrate judges, however one of them is based out of Independence and the other resides in Vinton, but practices in Waterloo when not working for the district court.

This could mean law enforcement officers would need to travel an hour or more to have a search warrant signed if Tama County’s one magistrate judge was not available.

“Looking at this from an anecdotal standpoint, it seems crazy to reduce judges in Tama County,” Vander Mey said. “I see it as part of the concentration of power and money into the metropolitan areas. The rural areas are an afterthought. Tama County has always been the bastard son of the judicial sixth district.”

During the past year, the Iowa judicial system has implemented a number of virtual solutions for court proceedings due to the pandemic. Should those virtual procedures continue permanently, the importance of judge proximity to the county courthouse could be lessened. However, the search warrant process has remained an in-person service that only a judge can sign off on.

“It’s definitely going to have an impact on us law enforcement, in my opinion, especially with search warrants,” Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera said. “There’s a possibility now we are going to have to go outside of the county to another magistrate to get our search warrants looked over, approved and signed. The difficulty there is that it takes officers off the road.”

Kucera said from a workforce standpoint, having to send an officer out of county to complete a search warrant could require another officer to be sidelined from their duties to maintain a presence at the scene of an on-going incident.

According to Kucera, from May 2020 to May 2021, 84 search warrants were issued and 88 involuntary mental health committals were processed throughout all of Tama County.

A third of the way into 2021, search warrants remain on pace toward a similar rate of 2020, but mental health committals are on track toward an increase of 40 to 50 percent.

With the upcoming four-lane expansion of U.S. Highway 30 through Tama County and the recently announced workforce expansion at Tama County’s largest employer Iowa Premium, increased traffic through Tama County could easily translate into a greater workload put before the local court system in the near future.

Iowa courts launched a pilot program last spring in four southwestern Iowa counties to test an electronic search warrant program that would allow search warrants to be signed electronically, easing the burden of law enforcement to travel to a judge. It’s unclear however, if or when a similar program might be made available statewide.

It’s also unclear how the district court administration will address coverage issues when the magistrate change occurs later this year.

“Taking away resident judges takes away from the responsiveness of the judicial system,” Vander Mey said. “The people I see in court are the people I see on the street, they’re my neighbors. I think you do a better job when people can come up to you in the grocery store and have a conversation.”