How Does The Iowa District Court Work?
The Iowa District Court is a unified trial court in Iowa. The District Court is usually the starting point for lawsuits and court cases involving the following:
- Domestic relations
- Family law
- Felony crimes
- Civil issues, and
- Small claims
Simple misdemeanors involving traffic offenses and county or city ordinance violations represent 75% of case filings in Iowa District Courts. Civil claims for damages amounting to $5,000 or less represent 9%. Furthermore, felony offenses and other criminal cases represent 6% of District Court filings, while civil cases involving children and family represent 4%. Juvenile cases and parental rights cases represent about 1%.
Tort cases (personal injury & property damage) and general civil litigation cases amount to 3% of Iowa District Court filings. Probate cases (estate, guardianship, conservatorship, adult mental health & substance abuse commitments) comprise over 2%.
There are 99 districts in the state of Iowa. For administrative purposes, districts are grouped into eight judicial districts with one District Court each. District Court judges have full jurisdiction over the District Court, including the respective jurisdictions of district associate judges and magistrates. Standard practices in Iowa District Courts involve:
- Prosecutors filing criminal charges
- Lawyers offering evidence
- Witnesses testifying
- Juries deliberating
The following are specialized procedures for cases in Iowa District Courts, depending on case type.
- Pretrial Procedure
- Petition and Answer: This involves a party filing a petition at the District Court’s Clerk’s Office.
- Pretrial Motions and Discovery: This may include voluntary requests for the court to dismiss a lawsuit, dismiss a party, or limit the evidence presented at trial. Discovery is the process of obtaining information from the opposing party.
- Pretrial Conference: A pretrial conference involves the judges and attorneys on the case. The conference involves a discussion of the trial topics, and also confirms a date for the trial.
- Trial Procedure
- Jury Selection: Involves selecting a jury panel comprising sixteen jurors drawn randomly from a jury pool. The judge and parties to the case are responsible for screening the jurors. Parties then reduce the prospective jurors, leaving an eight-person jury.
- Opening Statements: This involves parties giving an overview of the evidence expected to be presented.
- Presentation of evidence: Parties present evidence by calling witnesses and asking questions. Parties must abide by the Iowa Rules of Evidence during this process.
- Closing Arguments: This involves the justification of evidence by both parties to persuade the judge.
- Jury Deliberation: Seven out of eight jurors must agree to reach a decision. If the jury cannot reach a decision, the case may be retried with a different jury.
- Pretrial Procedure
- Initial Appearance: Involves the defendant appearing before a judge within a specified timeframe.
- Preliminary Hearing: This involves a defendant appearing before a judge to determine if there is sufficient evidence for continuing the case.
- Indictment: This is a criminal proceeding to determine if there is enough evidence to convict the defendant.
- Arraignment: The court reads the defendant the formal charges, and the defendant enters a plea of Guilty or Not Guilty.
- Discovery: The defendant requests evidence from the state and takes the deposition of witnesses.
- Plea Bargain: This involves discussions to resolve the charges without going to trial.
- Trial Procedure
- Jury Selection: Parties may exercise strikes from a jury composed of twelve jurors.
- Opening Statements: The state and defendant give a statement regarding evidence and charges.
- Presentation of Evidence: Parties present evidence through the questioning of witnesses and the introduction of evidence. The Iowa Rules of Evidence guide this process.
- Closing Arguments: Parties try to persuade the judge based on evidence provided during the trial.
- The Verdict: The jury returns a unanimous verdict of Guilty or Not Guilty. If the jury cannot reach a verdict, the judge may declare a mistrial, and the case may be tried at a later date with a different jury.
- Sentencing Procedure
- Pre-sentence Investigation: This is a report presented by the probation officer to the judge before sentencing. It contains information about the defendant’s criminal record, harm to any victims, and sentence recommendations.
- Victim Impact Statement: A statement written by victims that may be read in court.
- Sentencing Laws: These are statutory guidelines set by the Iowa State Legislature for the amount of fine or term of imprisonment for criminal offenses. Iowa judges do not have the authority to give rulings outside these guidelines.
- Incarceration: Defendant is sent to a prison facility to serve a sentence. Sentences less than one year are served at county jails.
- Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) procedure
- Removal: A judge removes a child from his or her home without a hearing.
- Adjudication: The state offers evidence and calls witnesses to support its claim against a child’s parents.
- Disposition: The judge determines whether to provide supportive services to the parents or place the child out of the home.
- Review: The court holds a hearing every six months to determine the child’s condition and the parents’ efforts.
- Termination of Parental Rights: This is an order which permanently ends the parents’ legal relationship to a child and frees the child for adoption.
- Delinquency Proceedings
- Intake: The court officer and a child’s parents screen the complaint made against the child to determine if the court will take action.
- Informal Adjustment: The child’s parents and court services sign an agreement requiring the child to admit to the charges and agree to certain conditions.
- Formal Proceedings: This is a petition containing allegations of the child’s delinquent acts. The county attorney files the petition on behalf of the state.
- Adjudication Hearing: The court holds a hearing to determine if the child is guilty of the alleged acts.
- Disposition: The court may place the child in foster care, residential treatment, or a state institution. The court may also send the child to probation, where the juvenile must comply with certain conditions.
- Waiver Hearing: Children over the age of 14 may be sent to an adult court if the judge determines that there are no reasonable prospects to rehabilitate that child in Juvenile Court.
The Iowa District Courts comprise different judicial officers, including:
Each of Iowa’s 99 counties has a judicial magistrate. Magistrates have the authority to conduct preliminary hearings and issue search warrants within a county of residence. The jurisdiction of Iowa magistrates include:
- Simple misdemeanors
- Small claims
- Hospitalization matters
Magistrates in Iowa serve four-year terms and are appointed by county Magistrate Appointing Commissions. Each Magistrate Appointing Commission consists of a District Court judge designated by the chief judge of the judicial district, three non-lawyer members appointed by the board of supervisors, and two lawyers elected by attorneys in the county.
Associate Juvenile Judges
Associate juvenile judges have the authority to issue orders, findings, and decisions in Iowa Juvenile Courts. These judges have jurisdiction over the following:
- Juvenile delinquencies
- Child in Need of Assistance (CINA)
- Termination of parental rights
The district judges appoint a new judge from a list of nominees provided by the county Magistrate Appointing Commission. Associate juvenile judges serve a term of six years.
District Associate Judges
District associate judges have the authority to hear serious cases in Iowa District Courts. District associate judges have jurisdiction over the following:
- Misdemeanor cases
- Civil suits with amounts in controversy totaling $10,000 or less
- Juvenile cases
The district judges appoint a new judge from a list of nominees provided by the county Magistrate Appointing Commission. District Associate judges serve six-year terms.
District judges have jurisdiction over any type of case within the Iowa District Courts. District judges oversee the schedule of judicial service in all Iowa counties. Types of cases heard by district judges include felony criminal cases, dissolution of marriage, probate, juvenile cases, and other matters.
The governor of Iowa appoints a new judge from a list of nominees provided by the District Judicial Nominating Commissions. Each District Judicial Nominating Commission consists of the most senior court judge in the district, five members elected by lawyers, and five non-lawyer members appointed by the governor. The most senior court judge is designated as chair.
The Supreme Court has the authority to retire judges for disability and discipline or remove a judge upon recommendation by the Iowa Judicial Qualification Commission. Parties who believe a judge or magistrate has exhibited unethical behavior may file a complaint with the Judicial Qualifications Commission for disciplinary action. Complainants will be required to provide the following information:
- Name of judge or magistrate
- Date(s) of conduct
- Place(s) where the conduct occurred
- Name and number of case connected to the complaint, if applicable
- Name and addresses of people who were present
- Documents to support allegations
Parties who disagree with a judgment may:
- File an appeal to a higher court to review the judge’s ruling
- Petition the legislature to amend the law
- Amend the constitution to undo the court’s interpretation
The clerk of the District Court in a county files and maintains all district court records. Some of the clerk’s duties include:
- Accepting and processing fines, fees, court costs owed to the state, child support checks, and civil judgments owed to litigants
- Disposing of uncontested scheduled violations
- Notifying state, local government, and law enforcement agencies of court orders
Information regarding District Court clerks in Iowa counties can be found in a directory of District Courts provided by the Iowa Judicial Branch website.
There are also District Court administrators who are appointed by the chief judge of a judicial district. Duties of the District Court administrator include:
- Assisting the chief judge in administration and supervision of the judicial district
- Helping the state court administrator in implementing policies
- Employing and supervising employees
Juvenile Court Officers (JCOs) work with troubled young people in districts of Iowa. Some of their duties include:
- Intake of delinquency cases
- Arranging treatment and services for juveniles with problems
- Interacting with families of troubled children
- Arranging for juveniles to pay restitution or community service
- Working closely with school and law enforcement officials
- Monitoring a juvenile’s progress
- Administering informal adjustment programs
District Court reporters record everything said in a courtroom. All notes and transcripts written by court reporters are part of official court records, including a verbatim account of the court’s proceedings. District Court attendants oversee activities of jurors, facilitate courtroom proceedings, perform clerical work, and help judges with reception duties.
Below are the locations of District Courts in the state of Iowa. For administrative purposes, Iowa is grouped into eight districts.
Allamakee, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Chickasaw, Clayton, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Grundy, Howard, Winneshiek
Boone, Bremer, Butler, Calhoun, Carroll, Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Franklin, Greene, Hamilton, Hancock, Hardin, Humboldt, Marshall, Mitchell, Pocahontas, Sac, Story, Webster, Winnebago, Worth, Wright
Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, Crawford, Dickinson, Emmet, Ida, Lyon, Kossuth, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Sioux, Woodbury
Audubon, Cass, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Page, Pottawatomie, Shelby
Adair, Adams, Clarke, Dallas, Decatur, Guthrie, Jasper, Lucas, Madison, Marion, Polk, Ringgold, Taylor, Union, Warren, Wayne
Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn, Tama
Cedar, Clinton, Jackson, Muscatine, Scott
Appanoose, Davis, Des Moines, Henry, Jefferson, Keokuk, Lee, Louisa, Mahaska, Monroe, Poweshiek, Van Buren, Wapello, Washington
There are three ways to view District Court cases in Iowa. These include:
- Electronic document viewing at a courthouse public terminal in the county where the case was filed
- Written requests for District Court records made to the District Court Clerk in the county where the case is filed; a directory of District Courts is available on the Iowa Judicial Branch website.
- Online using the self-search tool provided by the Iowa Judicial Branch. Requestors seeking information online may search by name, case ID, or citation number. Although the service is available to all users, some details may only be available to registered users. The monthly subscription fee for registered users is $25.
To make payments on citations, users may contact the court clerk at the county courthouse or use the Payment Search tool provided by the Iowa Judicial Branch. Persons using the online payment search will be required to provide their first and last names to search for citations. Users with misspelled names may input the following information:
- Citation number
- Case type
- County of case
This service is available to all users.