At the lowest rung of the judiciary in Iowa are magistrates and associate judges with limited powers over specific jurisdictions. Among them are appointed magistrates, who may preside over misdemeanor issues, sign warrants, hear pleas, and conduct small claims proceedings. Associate juvenile judges, appointed by district court judges, with jurisdiction over delinquency cases, adoptions, child in need of assistance, and parental rights cases. Associate probate judges have similar jurisdiction in cases involving estates, wills, and trusts. Associate judges serve six-year terms. District associate judges have the same authority as magistrates as well as handling civil suits under $10,000 and aggravated misdemeanor charges.
This is where most residents of Iowa will encounter justice, as the state is divided into eight judicial districts, each with five or more counties. All cases from felony charges to violations of county ordinance to divorce and juvenile crime are handled here. Some cases may be handled by associate judges or magistrates. Jury trials and issues of more significance are conducted by a judge.
In recent years the district courts have piloted subdivisions of drug court and business court to take the burden off the general court and expedite cases.
District court judges are nominated by the governor after names are forwarded by a special nominating commission.
Nine judges sit on the appeals court to hear disputed cases from lower courts. The state appeals courts have no exclusive jurisdiction as their caseload is dictated by the state Supreme Court.
Judges on this court serve six year terms after appointment by the governor. They do not take testimony from witnesses but a panel of three judges reviews the records of a case and hears oral arguments from both sides before making a decision.
All appeals of lower court cases start here, and some may be transferred to the appeals courts at the behest of the Supreme Court justices. Seven judges sit on the Supreme Court. Among their duties are oversight of the state court system and the state bar. Recent figures show that the court receives about 2,000 filings per year, of which 30 percent are appeals of criminal cases and nearly 45 percent are related to family law decisions, including termination of parental rights and children in need of assistance.
A 17-year-old convicted of the premeditated shotgun murder of his grandparents will not spend his life in prison because the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. State Supreme Courts are responsible for determining the constitutionality of laws in their states. A district court judge had sentenced the teen to two life terms for the murders but Supreme Court justices decided that a teen's still-developing brain allows the potential for rehabilitation later in life.
In a minor case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, an Iowa man stopped for speeding had his conviction for drug possession thrown out by the top court in the land. In 1998 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction of a man whose car was searched after he was cited for speeding. Although Iowa courts upheld his conviction for drugs that were found after he received the speeding ticket, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the police investigation (searching the car) had concluded when the man received the speeding ticket.