Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
Each of Iowa’s 99 counties has its own district court, which is considered a unified trial court. The district courts are organized into eight judicial districts for administrative purposes. For instance, Des Moines, the capital city, is located in Polk County. State court cases in Des Moines are filed in the Iowa District Court for Polk County, which is in the Fifth Judicial District. There are several levels of judges within the district court system: District court judges, who have general jurisdiction over all types of cases, and associate judges, magistrate judges, associate juvenile judges and associate probate judges, who exercise limited jurisdiction. (See Iowa Code § 602.6101 (district court judges); § 602.6306 (district associate judges); and § 602.6405 (magistrate judges)).
In jury trials, eight jurors are selected for civil cases and twelve jurors are selected for criminal cases.
Appeals from the district court are filed with Iowa’s highest court, the Iowa Supreme Court, which has seven justices who are appointed by the Governor. The Supreme Court may retain appeals (generally involving legal issues of first impression, substantial constitutional issues and issues of significant public policy) or transfer them to an intermediate appellate court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, which has nine justices who sit on three panels of three judges. Approximately 90% of all appeals are transferred to the Court of Appeals. A party may request further review of a decision by the Court of Appeals by the Iowa Supreme Court. (See Iowa Code § 602.6101).
Iowa also has two federal district courts, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa and the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
Basis of Jurisdiction
The Iowa district court is considered a unified trial court with exclusive, general and original jurisdiction over all civil, criminal, probate and juvenile matters. (See Iowa Code § 602.6101). Civil actions for money judgments where the amount in controversy is less than $6,500, exclusive of interest and costs, are filed in small claims court. (See Iowa Code § 631.1). The district court, sitting in small claims, also has concurrent jurisdiction over forcible entry and detainer actions as well as replevin actions and executions against personal property, if the value of the property is less than $6,500. (See Iowa Code § 631.1).
In 2016, the Iowa Supreme Court created the Iowa Business Specialty Court, a specialized district court for complex commercial litigation with judges who have expertise managing business litigation. It is limited to cases involving claims for compensatory damages of at least $200,000 or business disputes seeking primarily injunctive relief or declaratory relief and falling into at least one of several broad categories of eligible cases. Cases may be transferred to the Iowa Business Specialty Court in one of two ways: (a) all parties consent, subject to the approval of the State Court Administration; or (b) a party files a motion to transfer the case, which is granted by the chief judge of the judicial district for the district court in which the case is pending, with the motion filed within 120 days of the filing of the original petition or within 30 days of service of an amended petition that adds new claims or parties. There are currently five district court judges on the roster of judges for the Iowa Business Specialty Court. Those judges also retain their normal district court dockets and duties.
In most civil cases in Iowa, mediation is voluntary but very common and often successful. Additionally, standard Trial Scheduling Orders used in most judicial districts allow parties to request a judicial settlement conference, usually (and preferably) handled by a judge other than the judge who will preside over the trial. Judicial settlement conferences are much less common, but can also be effective. In some types of cases, however – primarily family law matters and agricultural property disputes – mediation is mandatory, by statute. (See Iowa Code § 598.7 (mediation in family law cases); Iowa Code § 654A.6 (mediation in farmer-creditor disputes)). Also, at least one judicial district is now mandating pre-hearing mediation in small claims.
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