DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa attorney general's office has gained approval to temporarily hire lawyers to deal with a backlog of criminal appeal cases that have piled up since an Iowa Supreme Court rule change in 2012.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Eric Tabor described the conditions in a Jan. 7 letter to the Iowa Executive Council that outlined plans to hire three outside lawyers on a temporary basis to reduce the load. The council, made up of statewide elected officials, on Jan. 19 approved Tabor's request, which included a request by his office to use civil forfeiture money to cover the expense.
"With current staffing it is increasingly challenging to handle the caseload in time frames required by the Iowa Supreme Court," Tabor said in his letter to GeorgAnna Madsen, executive secretary for the Iowa Executive Council, which authorizes some state expenses involving litigation.
Three attorneys have since signed contracts that allow them to work as independent contractors through the end of June.
According to the letter, the office faces a backlog of about 100 criminal appeal cases where Iowa residents convicted of crimes have appealed their convictions and are waiting for state attorneys to file additional paperwork to move along the appeal process.
Despite Tabor's description in the letter of increasing challenges, he told The Associated Press the backlog has not affected the quality of the work done at the Criminal Appeals Division of the attorney general's office, which handles all criminal and post-conviction appeals in the Iowa Court of Appeals and the Iowa Supreme Court. He noted state attorneys are able to seek delays in filing paperwork.
"We've kept up despite a huge caseload increase and now we're trying to use some internal resources in a responsible, effective way just to make sure that we can get the job done," he said.
Bobby Rehkemper, a West Des Moines attorney and board member of the Iowa Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, was surprised by the extent of the backlog but noted the appellate process usually is lengthy, taking up to two years. It is typical for attorneys from both sides to seek extensions to file briefs, he added.
"I have yet to handle a case where the state has not requested an extension of their deadline to file their appeal," he said. "But I've asked for my fair share."
Patricia Reynolds, an assistant appellate defender for the state who represents convicted individuals, said the backlog has not affected her work.
"It's a careful procedure, and that can be to their benefit," she said of her clients. "The court is not rushing to make decisions, and although that can be frustrating, it's a careful deliberate process."
The letter said the attorney general's office has faced staffing challenges for several years, and it was exacerbated when the Iowa Supreme Court made some rule changes in 2012. One of them prohibited attorneys from seeking to withdraw from certain appeals on the grounds that it is frivolous.
"For many years, the number of criminal appeals averaged about 375-400 per year," Tabor wrote in the letter. "Currently, in the range of 600-700 appeals per year are being received by the Office."
The attorney general's office referenced the growing workload in a budget recommendation in November 2013, according to documents. For the fiscal year that ended in 2014, the Legislature provided funding for two additional criminal appeal attorneys. The following fiscal year, a $175,000 request for more staffing was backed by Gov. Terry Branstad but was not approved from the Legislature. Tabor said the office rearranged resources for the current fiscal year to hire an additional attorney, but he's seeking temporary attorneys now because of the difficulty in securing state funds. He didn't seek additional funding for staffing for the next fiscal year.
Branstad serves on the Iowa Executive Council but didn't attend the Jan. 19 meeting. His spokesman, Ben Hammes, said Branstad didn't have a comment on the management of the attorney general's office.
Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said many state departments face staffing limitations and it's difficult to allocate state dollars when the divided Legislature has different calculations of what's available to spend.
"The attorney general's office probably has more flexibility than a lot of departments," he said.
The temporary attorneys will cost between $50,000 and $100,000, and the office will cover that expense with money collected through civil forfeiture, a legal process that allows law enforcement to seize money and other property from people suspected of illegal activity.
Tabor said he's hopeful the caseload can later be handled with current, permanent staff.
"That's the hope," he said. "But we don't control the number of cases."