Iowa Courts

Guide to Iowa's Court System

Some states have as many as 50 different courts, but Iowa only has three (3) courts: Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and District Court. 

There are two (2) different types of court: Trial Courts and Appellate Courts.  The difference between the two is that Trial Court hears original cases, while Appellate Court hear only appeals. 

In Iowa, the Trial Court is called the District Court.  Judges and Magistrates on this level handle a wide variety of cases, from murder to traffic violations to civil cases.

In Iowa, there are two (2) Appellate Courts.

Appellate Courts are where a party involved in a civil or criminal case goes if the do not agree with the decision of the judge or jury in the trail court.  There are no presentation of witnesses or physical evidence, which is done only in the Trail Court.  The final judgment on an appeal is determined by a majority of the panel of appellate judges.  Appellate Court usually consists of a panel of 3-5 judges or more.

Almost all cases involving state civil and criminal laws are initially filed in state or local trial courts.  These courts are typically called Municipal, County, District, Circuit, or Superior Courts.  In Iowa, they are called District Courts, with one in each county.  In Iowa, appeals from Trial Court usually go to the Court of Appeals

Steps in a Civil Case in Iowa District Courts

  1. Filing: Plaintiff (petitioner) files a written complaint (petition) and serves a copy on the defendant.  (Some cases are dismissed because the plaintiff fails to serve the petition/complaint on the defendant)

  2. Defendant files a written answer and serves a copy on the plaintiff.  (Some cases end in default judgment against the defendant for failure to file an answer.

  3. Pre-trial begins with discovery and investigation.  (In most cases, the parties settle; or a summary judgment is entered by the judge; or the complaint is dismissed by the judge if the plaintiff fails to move the case forward.)

  4. Trial date is set.  Sometimes further settlement discussion and/or final motions are made before trial. 

  5. Trial.  (Less than 3% of civil cases in Iowa go to a jury trail with some cases settling after the trail starts.

Steps in a Criminal Case in Iowa District Court

  1. Citation is issued, Arrest made, or Charges Filed.

  2. Initial Appearance in Court.  (Required to be held within 24 hours if the defendant is held in jail.  The Magistrate/Judge reads the charges to the defendant, determines if there are grounds for charge(s).  Informs the defendant of there constitutional rights; sets a bail amount if appropriate. 

  3. Preliminary Hearing which is primarily held within 10 days after the initial appearance if the defendant is in custody/jail; within 20 days of initial appearance if not in custody, unless waived by the defendant.

  4. Filing of Formal Charges by the County Attorney.  If the charges include an "Indictable Offense" (a Serious of Aggravated Misdemeanor, or Felony), the county attorney must file a formal charging document called a "Trail Information".  Or the County Attorney may seek an "Indictment" -- a formal charge recommended by a grand jury (7 citizens selected to hear the county attorney's evidence and determine if the defendant probably committed the crime; the grand jury does not determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt).  County Attorney's in Iowa rarely use a grand jury; they usually file a trail information.  Formal charges must be filed within 45 days after the initial appearance or the case could be dismissed.

  5. Arraignment - the occurs as soon as practicable after the filing of the formal charges.  Judge determines whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed.  The defendant is required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at this time.

  6. Pretrial Matters - the defense and prosecution continue to investigate the case.  Attorneys file motions such as exclusion of some or all evidence because it was obtained illegally by police or dismiss the charges altogether because the arrest was illegal.  A judge or magistrate then enters his/her decision on these motions.  The Prosecutor and defense attorney may engage in "plea negotiations" where the defendant is given the opportunity to pled guilty to charges and sentence based on recommendations supported by the prosecutor.  A judge must then approve any plea agreement.

  7. Trail - Must take place within 90 days after the indictment or filing of charges, unless the defendant waives the right to speedy trial; but all criminal trials must be stated within 1 year from the arraignment unless good cause for further delay is shown.

    • Indictable cases go to a jury trial, unless the defendant requests a trial before a judge.

    • Jury Trials:  12 jurors; a verdict of guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" or nor guilty must be unanimous, or the judge will declare and mistrial.  A prosecutor may bring the case to a jury trial again after a mistrial.

    • If found "not guilty" after the trail, a defendant may not be tried again on that charge.

  8. Sentencing - Defendants who are convicted can be sentenced to jail, prison, probation, treatment (for drugs or alcohol addiction), pay a fine and or restitution to the victim.

Guide to Iowa's Court System

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