People to Watch: Des Moines attorney tries to make the justice system work for Iowans
Anjela Shutts has been deeply involved in access to justice issues for years, said Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel. Des Moines Register
Thousands of Iowans walk into their county courthouses every year to resolve divorce and child custody cases.
Yet in many of these cases, at least one of the parties involved has no lawyer.
"I think people would be shocked if they spent a day at the Polk County Courthouse the number of people who try to represent themselves," said Anjela Shutts, a Des Moines lawyer and vice chair of the Iowa Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission.
That's partly because, unlike in criminal cases, there's no guaranteed right to counsel for civil matters like divorce.
"You have a child support issue, you have an issue with your landlord, you have a child custody issue — you’re not guaranteed counsel, and so you either have to find the means to pay for it or you represent yourself," Shutts said.
For many Iowans, paying for a lawyer is out of reach. Others face language barriers when they walk through the courthouse doors. Courtroom rules can be difficult to understand and sometimes aren't written down. And rural Iowans face both a long drive to the courthouse and a shortage of attorneys.
Shutts, 47, who is one of the Register's 15 People to Watch in 2019, was one of those who encouraged the formation of the Access to Justice Commission in 2016 to think about big solutions to these and other issues so Iowans can more easily navigate their justice system.
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'A stalwart' on access to justice for Iowans
Shutts has been deeply involved in access to justice issues for years, said Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel, who called her "a stalwart in the area."
She's a longtime volunteer who represents clients for free through the Polk County Volunteer Lawyers' Project. And she helps educate other lawyers about how to do the same.
"The access to justice issue is not something Anjie just came up with over the last year or two," Appel said.
Appel chairs the Access to Justice Commission and earlier this year presented Shutts with the Iowa Supreme Court's Voice for Justice award.
"She’s been very active in all aspects of the commission’s activities from the very beginning, and she’s proved to be energetic, positive, a real team builder, a doer," he said.
Appel said Shutts' experience with family law cases brings an important perspective to the commission.
"A significant number of folks that seek resolution of family law problems lack access to attorneys, so therefore her experience is I think quite helpful," he said.
Bringing kids' voices into the justice system
She's also helping change the way kids are represented in court in Polk County.
Shutts sits on the advisory board of Kids First, a nonprofit with branches in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
Normally, divorce and custody cases are negotiations between two points of view: the lawyers or litigants for each parent or spouse. Kids First provides lawyers — free of charge for low-income families and on a sliding scale as incomes increase — to advocate for the child's best interests.
"They can bring something to the table that is a high-conflict custody case that is missing, and that is the voice of their kids," Shutts said.
Retired District Court Judge Eliza Ovrom said when she and former Judge Mary Pat Gunderson began recruiting board members for the Kids First Des Moines branch, which opened last year, Shutts quickly stepped up to raise money and promote the organization.
"I think she just cares about the effects of divorce and custody battles on children and she just wanted to help kids in the community," Ovrom said.
Gunderson said it wasn't immediately clear that Kids First would be successful "but she was fearless about committing because she knew it was the right thing to do to help these children."
Helping families navigate a difficult time
Family law has intrigued Shutts since she was an intern at Iowa Legal Aid, then called the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa, as a Drake Law School student.
"That was my first exposure to family law, and it really kind of lit something in me as far as a real interest in how you help individuals navigate what is a very difficult and hard time in their life," she said.
When she joined Whitfield & Eddy as a lawyer in 1996 after clerking at the firm for two years, she quickly raised her hand to take on divorce and custody cases. Now the firm has one of the largest family law divisions in the state, with seven attorneys who practice in the area most or all of the time.
She knows the stakes are high for her clients.
"I say to my partners ... that do business work, it’s like you get a client that has a million-dollar judgment against them or two-million-dollar, I’ll make that phone call in a heartbeat if you promise me the next time I have a client that loses physical custody of their kids that you make that call," Shutts said.
Tim Pearson, a family law lawyer at Laden & Pearson, P.C. who has known Shutts for years, said she's a good negotiator and advocate for her clients in court. She's also a skilled mediator.
"She recognizes how important it is to put the ability to settle a case back in the hands of the people who know the most about it, and that’s the parties and the attorneys," Pearson said. "Going to court in family law is the last resort."
Shutts said she will continue her work on the Access to Justice Commission in the new year.
In March, she faces two other candidates in an election for vice president of the Iowa State Bar Association. If she wins the position, she would become president in 2021.
Shutts herself comes from what she calls a stable family. ("I don't want to say boring, that's not the right word," she says).
She lives with her husband and two daughters, ages 12 and 15. Her parents were married for 48 years before her father passed away.
Growing up, her parents — neither of whom graduated college — encouraged her and her siblings to get their education. It's a gift she feels she has an obligation to pay back.
"Over the years I have been very fortunate to represent some really great individuals," she said. "And I always say to them at the end of it, 'Thank you for allowing me to represent you because I’ve been privileged to do that.'"
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2019" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit DesMoinesRegister.com/peopletowatch.
Anjela (Anjie) Shutts
BORN: 1971 in Newton, Iowa; raised in Grinnell
RESIDENCE: Des Moines
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Arts in political science from Luther College, 1993; law degree from Drake University Law School, 1996
CLAIM TO FAME: "My superpower is showing up and raising my hand and volunteering for things"
TITLES: Vice-chair of the Iowa Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission, member of the Polk County Judicial Nominating Commission, advisory board member of Kids First, past president of the Polk County Bar Association and Polk County Volunteer Lawyers Project, former member of the Whitfield & Eddy executive committee
FAMILY: Husband Peter Kitundu; daughters Mary Elisabeth Kitundu, 15, and Lillian Kitundu, 12
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