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Defendants appearing in magistrate court will soon see a new face sitting behind the bench.
Ringgold County Magistrate Jim Pedersen retired on November 25 after serving 31 years and four months as Judicial Magistrate. Pedersen was first appointed by the Ringgold County Judicial Nominating Committee and began serving on August 1, 1989. By Iowa state law, an Iowa Magistrate must retire when reaching the age of 72.
Prior to his appointment, Pedersen had been working for Camp and Harsh Law Firm of Creston in their Mount Ayr office when they decided to close in the summer of 1989. Uncertain of his future and looking for employment, Pedersen applied for the part-time Magistrate position, was appointed, and also opened a sole practitioner law office in Mount Ayr.
At the time of his appointment, Rollin Noble was the Clerk of Court (soon to be replaced by longtime Clerk Cindy Johnson); Donna Stephens was the Magistrate Clerk; Arlen Hughes was the County Attorney; and Lyle Minnick was the Sheriff.
Pedersen has served with four Clerks of Court, two county attorneys, and, four sheriffs and has especially enjoyed his working relationships with all of those folks along with district court judges, adjoining county Magistrates, sheriff’s deputies, sheriff’s office personnel, state troopers, city policemen; defense attorneys, hospital ER personnel and everyone else who has had a role in providing justice to the citizens of Ringgold County.
“I trust folks do not take for granted all the dedication and hard work from those people,” he said.
Magistrate duties include jurisdiction over traffic and simple misdemeanor cases (including jury trials); holding initial appearances for indictable offenses (serious misdemeanors to Class A felonies) where bond is set, preliminary hearings scheduled, and appointing attorneys for defendants who cannot afford counsel; hunting and fishing violations; issuing protective orders; small claims cases where the amount in dispute is $6,500 or less (was $1,000 in 1989); forcible entry and detainer cases (actions for possession of real property typically between landlords and tenants); arrest and search warrants; mental and substance abuse proceedings; and weddings.
The Magistrate has a courtroom in the county courthouse and a designated courtroom in the Law Enforcement Center. (This avoids sheriff’s personnel having to transport defendants from the Center to the Courthouse for proceedings.)
“Magistrates are on call 24-7-365,” Pedersen said. “When I receive a call in the middle of the night, I know it is usually for requesting a search warrant, or handling a mental or substance abuse commitment.”
One of the areas that Pedersen experienced frustration was handling those mental and substance abuse cases.
“Unfortunately, there are many cases that needy individuals simply do not receive necessary treatment,” he said. “Availability of psychiatric and substance abuse hospital beds remains a huge problem.”
He explained when a person in need is taken to the Ringgold County Hospital emergency room for stabilization, and after a tele-med psychiatric evaluation recommends an individual needs inpatient treatment, it may be hours, or even days, before a qualified bed is found and the Magistrate gives an order to transport. This delay in finding placement unnecessarily ties up emergency room and law enforcement personnel.
There have been many changes over the past 31 years in the court system. In 1989, there were many lay (non-lawyer) magistrates serving in Iowa. Now, Iowa law mandates that a magistrate be a licensed attorney. The attorney can be a resident of an adjoining county due to the difficulty filling magistrate positions in rural areas.
Another change in the court system has been a movement to online computer filing of documents, which has been a very positive change. ICIS (Iowa Court Information System) and EDMS (Electronic Document Management System) have provided major improvements to the court system.
For example, several years ago, after hours when Pedersen did not have immediate access to online criminal records, if defendants told Pedersen they had no criminal history, he was pretty much at their mercy.
“Now I check the online criminal history before meeting the defendant,” he said. “Then if their answer is somewhat less than accurate, I have a way to ‘refresh their memory’ about their criminal history.”
One of the things Pedersen enjoyed about his duties was finding the facts in a case, determining the law, applying the facts to the law, and rendering a decision.
“I’m paid to make a decision,” he said. “If you don’t like it, appeal it.”
Incidentally, he had only two cases overturned on appeal during his career.
Pedersen says he wishes he had kept a diary over the years of all the things people have done or said – some providing great humor, and some great tragedy.
He has stated many times he hasn’t needed to watch TV or movies or read books as the nature of what he did provided him with all the entertainment he needed.
For example, when one defendant appeared in Magistrate Court after having been charged with harassment for throwing firecrackers at a morning newspaper deliveryman, Pedersen read him the Iowa Code section on harassment as well as the definition of “stupidity” from Webster’s dictionary.
“I stated it appeared both may apply in this case,” Pedersen recalled. “[County attorney] Clint Spurrier stated he agreed; however, he would not pursue the stupidity allegation if the defendant pled guilty to harassment. The defendant pled guilty.”
Another defendant who had just moved to Mount Ayr from Missouri had been charged with no driver’s license and no insurance on his vehicle. The defendent advised Pedersen that he didn’t have any money to pay a fine, and it was too stressful for him to serve a jail sentence.
“I buzzed Sheriff [Lyle] Minnick and advised he needed to take the defendant across the street to see Dr. Duane Mitchell for an evaluation.”
The defendant served several days in the county jail without incident.
Due to a Judicial Branch 90-day hiring freeze, a replacement magistrate will not be appointed until a future date. A district court judge will temporarily handle magistrate duties.