DES MOINES — Iowa’s newest Supreme Court justice, Christopher McDonald, was born in Bangkok, Thailand, and raised by a Vietnamese mother and Scotch-Irish father.
With his appointment Wednesday, he becomes the first minority to serve as an Iowa justice in the court’s 182-year history.
“I know that as the first minority or person of color appointed to the (Iowa) Supreme Court, people will have special expectations for me in terms of leadership and mentorship,” McDonald said after Gov. Kim Reynolds announced his appointment in a presentation at her formal office at the Iowa Capitol “I understand that. I appreciate that. I embrace those expectations, and I’ll certainly do my best to meet and exceed them.”
McDonald, 43, of Des Moines, has served on the Iowa Court of Appeals since 2013. Previously, he served as a judge in Iowa’s 5th judicial district, which covers central and south-central Iowa. Both those earlier appointments were made by then- Gov. Terry Branstad.
Reynolds selected McDonald for the state Supreme Court opening from among three finalists. It is her second appointment to the high court since becoming governor in 2017. Her previous selection, Justice Susan Christensen, last year became the court’s first female justice since 2010.
“On the bench, Judge McDonald has earned a reputation as a brilliant and thoughtful jurist, a hard worker and a good colleague,” Reynolds said. She said during the vetting process, Iowans described McDonald as having incredible character, independence, competence and the right temperament for a judge.
McDonald replaces former Justice Daryl Hecht, who in December retired to focus on his bout with skin cancer. Like the other associate justices, he will earn $147,808 a year and regularly face retention votes. He’ll appear on the ballot in 2020 and then every eight years after that.
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McDonald addressed Hecht in his remarks Wednesday, saying, “Please know that you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers, and I know I have big shoes to fill and I will certainly do my best to do that.”
The other finalists were 1st Judicial District Chief Judge Kellyann Lekar of Waterloo and 5th Judicial District Judge Dustria Relph of Corydon.
An independent commission of governor’s appointees and members elected by lawyers across the state whittled the field of applicants to the three finalists for the governor to consider.
Reynolds and her fellow Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are considering measures now that would alter the nominating process by removing the lawyer-appointed commission members and replacing them with members appointed by legislative politicians.
In his application, McDonald, a graduate of Grand View University and the University of Iowa College of Law, wrote of his love for the law, the give-and-take of argument and resolving complicated issues.
He also emphasized his “broad life experience.” He had lived on military bases around the world and after his parents’ divorce, settled with his mother on the south side of Des Moines.
“I also seek this position because I would provide good and valuable service to the public, the judicial branch, and the Supreme Court given the unique demands of the position,” he wrote. “In my career, I have continued to work and serve with persons of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses.”
McDonald said his experiences “reinforced in me the value of remaining open-minded and receptive to different perspectives … (and) heightened my awareness and understanding of access-to-justice and substantive-justice concerns for racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.”
James Q. Lynch of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.