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Jenna Lain lays down the law in her new role
By Jason W. Selby
Feb 13, 2017, 10:30

The Honorable Jenna Lain working hard in her new office at the Wayne County Courthouse. In November of 2016, Lain became the second female to serve as Judicial Magistrate in Corydon. Photo by Jason Selby
LAST NOVEMBER 12, LAIN BECAME ONLY THE SECOND FEMALE JUDICIAL MAGISTRATE IN WAYNE COUNTY HISTORY

Local attorney Jenna Lain has served her community in many ways, from referring clients for psychiatric help to pulling calves, from leading the Rotary Club as president to resolving traffic tickets.

In November of 2016, the Honorable John Birdwell retired his position as Wayne County Judicial Magistrate after six years of duty. Lain is serving the rest of his term while still taking private clients. She interviewed for the position last Election Day and began the job the following weekend.

Lain is only the second female to be named Judicial Magistrate in Wayne County history. The first was the Honorable Sheila Harned.

“The magistrate is an appointed position,” Lain said. “I interviewed when [Birdwell’s] position came available with a group of local attorneys and community members. It actually comes up for renewal again this summer. I will have to go through the same process again, and reapply and meet with the same committee.”

Lain is looking forward to the possibility of fulfilling a full term. Her new duties are both a challenge and an opportunity to broaden the scope of her legal knowledge.

MENTAL HEALTH

Lain’s official title is part-time Judicial Magistrate. She has jurisdiction over small claims court, which are civil disputes less than $5,000. She serves criminal defendants brought into the jail for their initial appearances in the courtroom, setting their bond, advising them of their right to an attorney, and making a probable cause determination on the charge. She has jurisdiction over simple misdemeanors such as traffic tickets. The indictables—the higher offenses—she sends to District Court.

She also has jurisdiction over mental health committals in Wayne County. So when Iowa was recently ranked 51st out of 50 states—including the District of Columbia—for the quality of mental health care in America, it’s safe to say Lain is on the front line of a losing battle. For Lain, Iowa’s poor ranking is a call to arms.

It is small wonder Democrats, Republicans and independents alike question, on this issue, the condition in which departing Governor Branstad has left the State of Iowa as he travels abroad to serve as ambassador to China. Branstad closed the two mental hospitals farthest south at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, and left open the option of closing the remaining two hospitals at Independence and Cherokee in favor of local, private community agencies.

However, many believe it was, in part, the well-intended decentralization of mental health services decades ago in Iowa that led to funds and resources being redistributed and diluted.

“Access to quality care is a real issue in rural counties,” Lain said. “It’s something we need to work on to see what other options we have.

“I am fully aware that when I sign an order requiring someone to undergo further evaluation for mental health, they might have to go to Council Bluffs, Sioux City or Mason City to be able to get that treatment. That not only puts that patient on the road, that puts our sheriff’s department on the road with their time.

“It’s not something the Des Moines community is used to having to deal with. They don’t see it, because they’ve got lots of mental health options. It’s an issue for all rural counties.

“It’s a complicated set of laws, too,” Lain said of involuntary committals for the sake of both the patient and the public’s safety, while at the same time respecting civil liberties. “There are a lot of patients’ rights built in.”

Lain has also met with Wayne County Hospital and Clinic System CEO Daren Relph and Chief Nursing Officer Sheila Mattly, RN.

“They reached out to me shortly after I started,” Lain said. “They said, ‘Let’s talk about what you need, and what we need, and how we can make this relationship work well.’

“I think the Wayne County Hospital does a really nice job of making sure people get the help they can there, and get presented to me if they need to be. One thing the hospital has done to help get me better evidence about whether that person is a threat to themselves or others, is now they are participating in the telemed system, so they’ve got access to the right mental health professionals. They can have a doctor’s help via telemed that’s trained in that area, so that by the time they call me, I can speak with an actual psychiatrist.

“Having the telemed option has cut down on the number of telephone calls I get, because, number one, it helps if there’s diagnosis, and they’re going to call me with a physician’s opinion—some people are then more willing to go ahead and sign in voluntarily [for mental healthcare]. And then it helps cut out the ones that aren’t a threat to themselves and others.

“In the past, it was left up to the magistrate to make that call about whether they were a threat, when they weren’t able to call a mental health physician.”

However, with the shortage of resources and psychiatrists in the State, that responsibility is currently being offloaded onto sheriff’s deputies and police officers. The problem is far from solved.

“I think [telemed] correctly aligns everyone’s trained job responsibilities,” Lain said. “It gives the hospital or the family member or the sheriff’s office real medical evidence to present to me. Then I can take that medical opinion and see if it fits the legal thresholds—where in the past, the medical evidence was not that good—it left the magistrate by default to make more of a medical decision they weren’t trained to do.”

PULLING CALVES

While dealing with patients in the criminal justice system with mental health issues is difficult, Lain decompresses from her duties at home. Sometimes she just has to go outside and help her husband pull a calf.

“That’s just part of what we do,” Lain said of signing an order for psychiatric help. “I understand my decisions directly impact the lives of others and I take that very seriously, but you have to leave that stress at the office and not take it home with you.

“I feel confident I am prepared to handle those tough situations. And I know whether it is the mental health, or if it’s a criminal matter or a small claims matter, every decision I make impacts people in different ways. Sometimes you can foresee how it might impact them, but sometimes you don’t even know. It’s just part of the job.

“Being an attorney, every day, every client you come in contact with, they have an issue that’s imminent for them. You’re impacting their lives in one way or another. Every day is interesting.”

An attorney from Lucas County had originally approached Lain, asking her to take on the duties of judicial magistrate in Chariton’s courthouse. That sparked her interest when the same position in Wayne County came open.

Lain graduated from Drake Law School in December of 2009, passing the bar exam in 2010.

After working at Chambers & Relph Law Firm, Lain branched out to start her own practice in January of 2014.

Jenna and husband Justin live on a farm near Millerton. Though she grew up in Webster City, graduating from high school in 2003, she met animal science major Justin at Iowa State University. Jenna double majored in ag business and international agriculture and minored in agronomy, which helps her negotiate the loopholes of ag law. The young couple works land in both Wayne and Lucas County.

They have two sons, Tucker, five years old—a preschooler in Adriann Anderson’s preschool class at Wayne Community School District—and Brantley, three years old.

After college, they decided Corydon was where they wanted to make their home. Webster City is slightly larger, and Fort Dodge is right next door—friendliness of a community is often inverse in proportion to its size.

“I feel Corydon is a lot friendlier and just a smaller town,” Lain said. “I really enjoy going to the store and walking down the aisle and knowing the people you see. It’s a lot more of a community.

“I remember coming down here and looking for a job. Dusti Relph and Roberta Chambers had just been in a magazine about a mother-and-daughter pair [of lawyers], and I knew we were going to come down here and farm.”

Relph is now a judge, while Chambers is retired.

“I just remember saying, ‘I’m going to be here for the long haul—can I have a job?’” Lain said of her interview with Relph and Chambers. “I was totally green coming out of law school. You come out with a really good understanding of the law, but as far as each judicial district works, and the standards of practice in a community, you’ve got to learn how people do things in the area.

“They were really great mentors, and Dusti still is, and I still see Roberta around as well.

“I told Dusti years ago that I thought she’d make a great judge. I was happy to see her move on to that next level, and bring a female perspective to that position.”

EVERYTHING

For her magistrate duties, Lain has hours at the Wayne County Courthouse on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She is on call at all other times for such matters as search warrants and criminal and mental health issues.

“Otherwise, my law office is still open every day 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Lain said. Assistant Ashley Carpenter is usually on hand. “Ashley doesn’t have a title, because if I were to give her a title, it would be ‘everything.’ She’s my business manager, she’s my legal assistant, she’s my receptionist—she takes care of everything.

“Taking the magistrate position was a good opportunity for me to quit doing some of the criminal, court-appointed work that was putting me on the road to Leon, Osceola, Knoxville, Ringgold County and Lucas County, to take that travel time out of my schedule and put all that time into Wayne County. I’m really better able to serve my private clients because I’m in town a lot more often, and I’m in my office a lot more often.”

In her private practice, Lain also performs juvenile court work.

“And so I work with the school for a lot for those kids,” Lain said. “It’s child-in-need-of-assistance cases with DHS.”

She is an active member in community associations, as well.

“Honestly, I really enjoy being involved in civic organizations and activities,” Lain said. “So I don’t have a lot of down time.”

Lain is president of the Rotary Club and a member of the Wayne Community Foundation Board of Directors. Her husband is on the Wayne County Fair Board and the Farm Bureau Board of Directors. They are both involved with the National FFA Alumni Association.

“A large percentage of my clients are actively farming or own farmland,” Lain said. “Ag law spans many different aspects of other types of the law, as well, and that’s what makes it so unique. It’s that fact that is specific to agriculture that makes it unique from other businesses. That’s what makes ag attorneys different from the Des Moines attorney that has a vast knowledge of real estate, is they don’t understand the nature of the facts they’re dealing with.

“I’ve had a number of clients involved in the family law situation, specifically in divorces, where the non-farming spouse with their big Des Moines attorney just didn’t have a clue.”

For Lain, becoming a magistrate has offered a deeper insight into the law. She also spends fewer hours driving, which gives her more time to pull calves.

“I just look at it as another step in a career—a new learning experience,” Lain said. “I think it fits well with my practice. It’s nice to be in Corydon more and on the road less.”

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