Courthouse in the River

     The final stop in a ride around Iowa checking out the state’s new e-filing system was Cedar Rapids, where the state court stands on an island in the middle of a river, is recovering from a flood, and still relies on paper.
     Imagine my lack of surprise when it also turned out to be the best court for press access we had seen in Iowa.
     Like the other courthouse we saw in Iowa, the courthouses in Cedar Rapids are prominent, imposing civic structures in the center of town. A new, light-filled, federal building houses five courtrooms and a provided a sweeping view of Cedar River.
     The old federal courthouse was damaged in the flood of 2008 and the government traded the building to Cedar Rapids in exchange for the plot of land where the new courthouse now stands.
     As part of the bargain, the city demanded that the building be restored to its former condition and then took it over to serve as the new city hall. What used to be the main courtroom now serves as the city council chambers, with politicians sitting at the long, elevated bench.
     Old city hall was on the same small island in the river where state court still operates. In that state courthouse, the main foyer is both a public hall, where the clerk’s office is located, and a work site, as the county repairs and renovates the flood-damaged areas.
     With the special projects editor for Courthouse News, we asked for the most recent 50 civil cases, and within two minutes a clerk brought back a stack of files. We walked over to a set big wood tables in the middle of the foyer and looked through the stack.
     When we returned the files, the counter clerk gave us a quick history of the cleanup at the courthouse, including the fact that the basement suffered the worst of the flooding, where the records were kept. The soggy archives were shipped to another city and frozen, she told us, to be dried out and later returned.
     The whole process had taken us a half-hour. Reviewing the public record in Cedar City’s state courthouse was simple, fast and easy.
     In contrast, a day earlier, we were in Des Moines where the court has recently switched to e-filing. When we asked to review the new civil cases, the counter clerk inquired with a number of other clerks and nobody had any idea how to go about it.
     The clerk came back and gave us a slip of paper on which she had written the phone number for the State of Iowa’s e-filing administration.
     As journalists must do, we politely persisted, and eventually the supervisor of the civil section, a friendly and helpful civil servant, came out and showed us to a single, stand-up, public terminal in the main hallway of the courthouse.
     After talking with us, she began taking groups of her staff out to the terminal to explain its purpose.
     On the public screen, in an apparent nod to the press’s role at the courthouse, a link was titled Iowa Press Association. The link allowed us, not to see, but to print out a report on recent filings, at ten cents a page.
     I paid 17 bucks for a 170-page print out covering the last two weeks.
     With that list in hand, we could enter each number into the public access screen, click on a link tied to the case, and then review an electronic copy of the filing.
     The process was slow, expensive and cumbersome, not at all comparable to the paper access in Cedar Rapids.
     As the Iowa tripped wrapped up, I had wanted to make a quick tour of the old federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, and it was then that I discovered the mural in the main courtroom and the story behind it.
     The old federal courthouse and post office had only one courtroom but it was an enormous, ceremonial room with very dark, almost black wood used for the judge’s bench, for the public benches and for the surrounding panels.
     Above the panels, at the back of the room was a mural, equally dark in its portrayal of the region’s history. The WPA art consisted of harsh, stark portrayals of chapters in state history. Indians were drawn as emaciated, wild-eyed, devilish creatures, including horns, while the settlers and their livestock were depicted with an equal portion of emaciation, physical exertion and suffering.
     The murals had been painted over once in the past, based on their themes, restored and painted over again in the 1960s. Only one wall has been uncovered so far, but a ten-foot print out of a panoramic photo of the images underneath on the paint on the three remaining walls was spread along the bench. It showed the equally stark references to slavery and and other dark scenes from the state’s past.
     With that quick bit of exploration and discovery to cap off the trip through Iowa, it was time to head to the small airport nearby for the long flight home.

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