On the Road in Iowa

     “It’s going to be an early harvest,” said the clerk in Sac County’s courthouse.
     A bit of relief had come the night before with a quarter inch of rainfall, she told us.
     That was the news in this Iowa county of 10,000 souls about half way between Sioux City and Des Moines.
     We had seen the miles of cornfields on the way down from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But much of the green was shot through with brown leaves and parched stalks. There had not been a whole lot of rain.
     Despite the lack of rain, the fields were nevertheless beautiful as the light hit them in the afternoon, reflecting a sheen of green and russet with patches of light-filled purple. The tapestry of fields were broken on occasion by small herds of grazing cattle, weathered barns and new houses, along with millions of dollars in farm equipment.
     With Adam Angione, the special projects editor for Courthouse News, we were driving from Sioux Falls to Des Moines, stopping at courts where a new, state-created e-filing system had been installed.
     The clerks at the courthouses did not know a whole lot more than we did, because the system was pretty new. Shelley, the clerk in Sac County, was friendly and, while giving us the crop report, explored the system along with us.
     After bumping our way through more Iowa courts in Sioux City and Des Moines, hearing right answers and wrong, learning more at each stop, the conclusion was that the e-filing system was no improvement over paper in terms of press access to the news. The most obvious shortcoming was that you had to travel to each courthouse to look at a screen to see the new cases filed there.
     You could not see them online nor could you see them from another courthouse. So you had to travel to Sac City, in the middle of Western Iowa, to see the new cases filed there, just as you did in the days of paper.
     By contrast, in the next-door state of Missouri, Courthouse News pressed for inter-court access and Chief Justice Mary Russell promoted that improvement in her speech to the state bar last month, saying it would improve public access.
     Although it may seem like a pretty fine critique of Iowa’s e-filing system it actually makes it tougher to find the news coming out of a courthouse.
     Case numbers proceed in sequential order as new cases are filed, in itself absolutely normal. But all of the Iowa courts outside Des Moines varied prefixes, based on case types, within the same sequence of numbers.
     So with case number 10, for example, the court will assign one of many different alphabetical prefixes. A reporter trying to cover the new filings must enter a bunch of different prefixes for each number until the match between that prefix and the case number is found. The e-file system will not allow a search by number alone.
     With paper files, as we found in Cedar Rapids, you can simply ask for the sequence of new files based on their numbers, because they are stored that way in the stacks. So the e-filing system actually makes it harder to look over the new filings for news, a traditional stop on the beat of a courthouse reporter.
     As part of the new electronic system, the Iowa Press Association had apparently lobbied for a link that included its name whereby a reporter can ask for a list of all new filings in an individual courthouse over the last two weeks.
     But that list cannot be seen on the public screen. The only way to see it is to order a print out at ten cents per page. In Des Moines, the print out was 170 pages long. So the e-filing system, contrary to its promise, is creating more paper as well as expense.
     It is a challenge and often an adventure to solve the access puzzle. But a principal side benefit is checking out an old courthouse.
     In Des Moines, the 1906 state courthouse is an ornate, brass and marble, stained glass, beautifully crafted example of public construction from an earlier era.
     On the top floor, the inside of the cupola displays quotes from statesmen and writers of the day, one of which pronounced religion as the basis for the law. On either side of the cupola are four vast murals that depict the preferred view of state history. The first is titled “The Indian In His Natural State” and portrays natives in a hearty greeting while others play flutes.
     The second mural portrays the Indians meeting the first white men, a priest and a fur trader.
     The third is titled “The Departure of the Indian From Iowa” and shows a couple soldiers and a few settlers waving goodbye as the Indians walk away.
     The final mural at the south end of the courthouse depicts Iowa’s accession to statehood. It is filled with a bunch of soldiers on one side and, on the other, a crowd of pink-cheeked, finely dressed Iowans, presenting the soldiers with the American flag.
     It seemed to me that in their gauzy version of state history, the murals were at the same time brutally honest. They depicted European-American soldiers and settlers taking a beautiful land away from Native Americans.
     After passing hundreds of miles of cornfields, with visits to seven courthouses, and an exploration of Iowa’s new e-filing system, I flew back to California with clear and colorful picture of a vibrant state in the heartland of our country that, up until now, I had only seen as a rough square in the middle of the a U.S. map.

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