Retired Iowa Supreme Court justice was "brilliant legal scholar, true gentleman"

James Carter served as justice for 24 years

A 2006 photo of former Justice James H. Carter of the Iowa Supreme Court.
A 2006 photo of former Justice James H. Carter of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Retired Iowa Supreme Court Justice James Carter was a “true gentleman” and a “brilliant legal scholar” who found legal issues nobody else could, which made him the “perfect” judge.

Outside of the law, judges and lawyers said Carter, 81, of Cedar Rapids, who died Saturday, was an avid Hawkeyes fan, who was as comfortable talking about basketball, football and baseball as he was about the law.

“I remember being scrunched together in the (University of Iowa) fieldhouse watching basketball games with him,” Stephen Jackson Sr., lawyer with Lynch Dallas, said Monday. “He wasn’t a fan who yelled a lot and I liked to yell but he liked it when I yelled.”

He belonged to an “exclusive club” of fans who attended a Hawkeye Rose Bowl victory, according to his obituary. When he was 45, he camped outside the field house for days, with a chaise lounge and sleeping bag, in order to nab tickets to see the Hawkeyes play in the NCAA Final Four.

Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Patrick Grady recalled when he and Senior Judge Nancy Baumgartner were young lawyers and had cases in Des Moines, Carter asked them for a ride back to Cedar Rapids.

“We had a pleasant and funny trip back with him discussing his beloved Hawkeyes and the legal shows of the time, such as LA Law,” Grady said.

Carter, who grew up in Clarksville, after graduating from the University of Iowa in 1956 and the University of Iowa College of Law in 1960, started out as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Henry N. Graven. He then joined Shuttleworth and Ingersoll in 1962 and in 1973 was appointed as a Linn County district judge and served until 1976.

Carter was then appointed as an original member to the Iowa Court of Appeals in 1976 by Gov. Robert Ray and in 1982, Ray appointed him to the Supreme Court, where he served just over 24 years and retired in 2006.

“The justices of the Iowa Supreme Court are deeply saddened by the passing of Justice Carter, Chief Justice Mark Cady said Monday. “He will be fondly remembered for his warm and enjoyable demeanor as well as his powerful intellect. He could recite a baseball player’s batting average as easily as the citation and holding to most any legal case. He was a wonderful person to work with.”

Jackson, who as a Democrat, helped Carter, who was a Republican, gain some needed votes from the Democratic members of the appointment commission for the court of appeals. Jackson said the commission was far more “political” back then.

“I was always impressed with his rulings,” Jackson said. “Carter was fair and he thought things through before making a decision, but he wasn’t afraid to change his mind.”

Jackson recalled one time when Carter ruled a man shouldn’t be allowed to see his children because he wasn’t paying child support, which went in Jackson’s client’s favor, but later, Carter said he was wrong. He said he shouldn’t have kept a child from their parent.

Jim Affeldt, lawyer with Elderkin and Pirnie, pointed out the retired justice had a reputation of always being respectful in court “whether you were a litigant, an attorney, or a witness. Justice Carter was a great jurist but an even better person.”

John Bickel, lawyer with Shuttleworth and Ingersoll, said Carter would get consumed with legal issues, along with his mentor, Harry Wilmarth, also a lawyer at Shuttleworth. “Almost obsessive — in a good way with legal issues- and would forget to eat lunch.”

Mike McDermott, also with Shuttleworth, added that Carter was “perfectly cast as a court of appeals judge and later, a justice. He loved to engage in research and analysis.”

A memorial service will be 11 a.m. Thursday at Murdoch-Linwood Funeral Home and Cremation Service. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to: Iowa Public Television in Carter’s memory.

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