Strittmatter looks back on time as magistrate judge

Nick Strittmatter works at his desk at his private law office in downtown Monticello. After eight years, he’s stepping down as one of two magistrate judges in Jones County. (Photo by Kim Brooks)
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     In just a few days, one of Jones County’s magistrate judges will be stepping down.

     Nick Strittmatter of Monticello will be finishing his eighth year in magistrate court, leaving Kristopher Lyons as the one full-time magistrate judge in the county, covering the Sixth Judicial District. This includes Jones, Benton, Iowa, Johnson, Linn, and Tama counties.

     “Historically, there has always been two judges as far as I remember,” said Strittmatter. He said he had the option of reapplying to remain on as a magistrate judge, but would be taking on a full-time position with the same pay. With two judges, they each are responsible for every other month. As of Aug. 1, Lyons will be the sole magistrate judge.

     Strittmatter put his name in the hat eight years ago after another Monticello attorney, Bob Shimanek, stepped down.

     “There was an opening and I applied,” he said, simple as that.

     Strittmatter said he was looking to take on something different that he could balance between his private practice in Monticello.

     “I thought I could do a good job at it,” he said. “It’s an important job; magistrate is the face of the judicial system.”

     So what led to the cut from two to one magistrate judge in Jones County? Strittmatter said it comes down to the state cutting the judicial department’s budget.

     “They (the judicial branch) had to pair back personnel,” he said. This meant cutting back on half a dozen judges and clerks of court in some counties across the state.

     “Some (clerk) offices will see reduced hours,” added Strittmatter. “And some will get unpaid furloughs.”

     No matter how small the county in terms of size and population, there is at least one magistrate judge in every county in Iowa. If someone from another county or state committed a crime in Jones County, for instance, that person is charged and has to appear in court where the offense took place.

     “The defendant’s residence is irrelevant in this instance,” shared Strittmatter.

     As a magistrate judge, Strittmatter saw it all, and then some. During his month on duty, every Wednesday would be consumed in court in Anamosa.

     “You’re responsible for seeing all arrests,” he said. “You see arrests every day and weekend.” Strittmatter had to make the decision of whether to release the person pending a trial and/or bond.

     He was also called on for emergency committals when it came to mental health or substance abuse cases.

     “This seemed to always be in the middle of the night,” he said. “They come up in a hurry and you have to take action immediately because the person could be in danger to him/herself or others.”

     In Iowa, mental health is a huge problem.

     “It’s also a real challenge for society nationwide,” said Strittmatter.

     Commitment beds are no longer available in some areas, forcing law enforcement and families to drive hours away to seek help.

     “It leaves a huge impact on families, requiring time and money,” added Strittmatter. “It’s very difficult to get people where they need to be.”

     Magistrate judges are also sought by law enforcement to sign off on search warrants.

     Working closely with law enforcement in the county, Strittmatter said he’s very impressed by the quality of officers in Jones County.

     “These officers are the accurate reporters of events that occur,” explained Strittmatter. “I’ve never sensed they didn’t have good intentions.”

     He said they all work hard and carry themselves with a level of professionalism.

     So aside from being in court all day on Wednesday, Strittmatter said he would also put in 10 or more hours during the week.

     He said it’s disappointing that the state had to cut magistrate judges.

     “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I tried to choose my words correctly when addressing people in court.”

     Strittmatter explained he felt it was important to personalize cases as much as he could.

     “I wanted to tell people what they should do in the future to better themselves,” he said. “That they need to make decisions in their best interest.”

     Magistrate Court is also the place to go for those who choose to get married inside the courthouse. Aside from the many marriages performed on site, Strittmatter has also performed over 100 marriages in people’s homes and farms.

     “I try to make them fun,” he said. “People are always in good spirits.”

     He’s also performed a dozen or so marriages inside the Anamosa Reformatory. Those have also been interesting to say the least, shared Strittmatter.

     Every year, with Strittmatter taking cases every odd month, fair week in Jones County fell on his time.

     “That is a very busy time,” he said. “But it’s a riot, and it’s fun.”

     Typically, he said the arrests are usually alcohol-related, disorderly conduct, or a combination of the two. By the time Strittmatter sees those arrested the next morning, “they’re a bit more coherent and in a better mood” than the night before.

     “These people are not hardened criminals,” he added.

     Of his service in court, Strittmatter said it’s hard when the law conflicts with what one might think is right or fair.

     “The magistrate’s job is to administer and follow the law and principles from the higher courts,” he said.

     In his eight years in magistrate court, Strittmatter said one of the biggest changes he’s seen took place a couple of years ago when the court system in Iowa went paperless.

     “It’s all done on computers now,” he said of filing cases and researching past cases. “That has some positive and negative aspects to it.”

     The good side brings with it some efficiency versus having to wait to receive court orders in the mail. The bad side, Strittmatter said technology doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. Strittmatter said as a judge, you’re also the secretary and typesetter, filling out court orders right then and there after a case. For someone who didn’t grow up using computers day in and day out, he said it took some time getting used to the whole change.

     Giving up his time in magistrate court, frees up more time for his private practice. Strittmatter plans to spend less nights and weekends working late hours.

     “As a small-town attorney,” he said, “you see life up close and personal.”

     Strittmatter has been a private attorney since 1978.

     “I grew up in Monticello and always practiced in Monticello,” he said.

     He said his wife, Ann, would also like to see him home more often then not.

     “We now have time to do other things versus being in the office every day,” Strittmatter said.

     The Strittmatters also plan to travel to see their children.


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