Government

Acting Iowa Chief Justice Wiggins sees himself as 'caretaker of justice'

Acting Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court David Wiggins leads the other Justices into the House chamber during Iowa
Acting Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court David Wiggins leads the other Justices into the House chamber during Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State address at the Iowa Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — It might be easy to dismiss Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins as just a caretaker.

But Wiggins, appointed acting chief justice after the November death of Chief Justice Mark Cady, believes caretaker is an essential role.

“We’re all caretakers of the court,” he said about the members of state’s highest court.

During his 16 years on the court, he said, “I’ve been a caretaker of the justice system.”

Delivering the annual report on the judiciary last week to a joint session of the Iowa Legislature “was sad because Justice Cady was a close personal friend,” Wiggins said.

Cady had begun the speech before his sudden an unexpected death, “but you know, the institution has to go on, and we have to do we have to do.”

It will go on, too, without Wiggins, 69, who has announced he will retire March 13. He’s confident that thanks to the caretakers, “the court will endure as it always has.”

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“When I’m done, someone else is going to come in and do the same thing,” he told reporters. “I’m sure the governor will pick a very qualified person or persons — there’s two opening — and I’m sure the court will endure as it always has.”

Wiggins, a Chicago native, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1973 and graduated from Drake University Law School in 1976. He began his legal career in a West Des Moines firm that included former Chief Justice Louis Lavorato, becoming a partner in 1979.

He and his wife, Marsha, have three children.

Here are some of his thoughts about the court.

Q: The court is going through a period of transition. Gov. Reynolds, who has appointed two of the court’s seven justices, will appoint two more to replace Justice Cady and you. How would you describe the condition of the court?

A: I think the courts are in pretty good shape. It’s an institution. It will endure.

Q: When Gov. Reynolds appoints your successor, she will have appointed a majority of the court in her three years on office. She and her predecessor, Gov. Terry Branstad, have moved the court in a conservative direction. Has that changed the relationship between the justices?

A: It’s always been a cordial relationship. I mean, we have our differences. When we have conference, sometimes we scream, but otherwise, you know, we work it out and get it done. It’s like practicing law, when you try a case, you’re going at it with the other side. But when you’re done, you may go have a drink with the person. If you start taking things personally, you’re not going to end up living very long. So you need to just take a step away and walk away from that.

Q: You were a practicing attorney for 27 years before Gov. Tom Vilsack appointed you to the Supreme Court in 2003. Was that transition hard for you?

A: I had to forget how to be a lawyer and how to look at things differently. I remember early on when I would write an opinion. (Former Chief Justices Marsha Ternus or Louis Lavorato) would come in my office and say, “Are you Attorney Wiggins or are you Justice Wiggins?” You have to change your whole way of thinking, and you have to look at things differently. It’s a process of evolution. We apply the law as it’s passed by this Legislature and we apply the Constitution as we interpret it. It’s the job of the Legislature and the governor to make the policy in the state. It’s our job to make sure that what they do doesn’t violate the Constitution. When they don’t write so precisely, it’s our job to interpret what they meant by the words they used and that’s really all we do. It’s pretty limited what we do.

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Q: Conservatives have criticized the Iowa Supreme Court for what they call “judicial activism.” Are there grounds for their criticism?

A: I always say an activist judge is the label given to the party who loses. You know, when the U.S. Supreme Court told the city of Chicago that it can’t have an ordinance to ban guns when a majority of the people and the majority of the (city) council voted to do it, was the U.S. Supreme Court activist? I mean, I think we have to do what we need to do, and the Legislature and the governor need to do what they think is right. And the government will endure.

Q: You spoke of the evolution from attorney to justice. Was there a personal evolution, too? Have 16 years on the Supreme Court changed you?

A: Well, allegedly it’s made me more tolerant and patient. My family might not say so, but I think it has. You can’t look at something and make a decision. You know, sometimes when you’re working on a case, you say, well, the outcome should be A. But when you start working on it, it’s really B, C or D. So you just got to keep an open mind and see where it leads you.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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