Iowa Chief Justice Cady praised for kindness, fairness

Kate Varnum: He represented 'the best of what Iowa has to offer'

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, who died Friday, is shown at a One Iowa gala with Trish Varnum, his wife Bec
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, who died Friday, is shown at a One Iowa gala with Trish Varnum, his wife Becky Cady, and Kate Varnum. The Varnums were plaintiffs in the 2009 challenge to Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage. Cady wrote the unanimous decision overturning the state law. (Photo supplied by Kate Varnum)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady is being remembered not only for his landmark opinion overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, but as a kind and gentle man who dedicated his life to the law and the court.

“He was a very nice guy,” said Kate Varnum of Cedar Rapids, whose life — and the life of her wife, Trish — were directly impacted by the opinion Cady wrote in the 2009 landmark Varnum v. Brien decision. Along with 10 other Iowans, the Varnums challenged the state ban after Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien refused to issue same-sex couples marriage licenses.

David Boyd, who was the administrator of the Iowa Judicial Branch at the time, agreed with her assessment of Cady, 66, who died of a heart attack Friday after serving more than two decades on the state’s top court after being appointed in 1998 by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

“The first thing that comes to mind is simply how he was as a human being, how genuine he was and how much he cared for everyone who he came in contact with,” Boyd said.

Kate Varnum, who met Cady at a social event eight years after her case was decided, described him Saturday as “the best of what Iowa has to offer — very humble, very generous and wanting to treat people fairly.”

He should be remembered as someone who “loved the law, the judiciary, and the state,” said Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who ordered flags on state facilities flown at half-staff.

“He leaves behind a legacy of service and dedication that we should never forget,” she said.


Branstad — who did not always get the decision he wanted from Cady — remains proud to have named him to the district court, the Court of Appeals and then the Iowa Supreme Court.

“He was a dedicated jurist who was liked and respected for his strong work ethic and fairness,” Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, said in a statement.

The Varnum decision was praised by supporters same-sex marriage rights, and its impact went beyond Iowa.

“It was one of the most well-reasoned, well-written decisions that in my 53 years of practicing law I have ever seen,” said Des Moines trial lawyer Roxanne Conlin. “It was absolutely a correct decision on the law.”

Cady wrote that it was the court’s responsibility “to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.”

“In this case,” he wrote in the unanimous ruling, “we must decide if our state statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the Iowa Constitution, as the district court ruled. On our review, we hold the Iowa marriage statute violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.”

The impact had added weight, Conlin said, because it came from a Supreme Court in the nation’s Midwest, was unanimous and because several of the justices had been appointed by a Republican governor.

“It also sent a ripple effect across the country because this was the first time a state that wasn’t coastal had granted marriage equality,” Varnum said. “That made Iowa this little island of equality. It demonstrated that Iowa is a state about fairness and equal opportunity.”


Yet at the same time, the ruling set off a firestorm of opposition from those who believed the law should allow only marriage between a man and a woman.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, now the chairman of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee, is among those who supported attempts to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. He declined Saturday to comment on Cady’s opinion and its impact.

“I don’t feel like this is the time to talk about that,” said Holt, who was shocked by Cady’s sudden death. “He was the chief justice of Iowa and well-respected. I’m so sad for his family and loved ones.”

While he had disagreements “as all people do in politics and the branches of government, I had great respect for Justice Cady,” Holt said. “I had great respect for his judicial knowledge. I’m thinking of that today.”

Cady never aspired to be chief justice, Boyd said, perhaps because he saw how much time it took the chief justices who preceded him to be leader of the Judicial Branch. He loved the research and writing the job of a justice entailed.

Cady maintained a low profile during oral arguments, seldom asking questions or offering comments from the bench, Conlin said.

However, following a 2010 retention vote that ousted three fellow justices, including Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, formerly of Vinton, over the Varnum ruling, Cady was chosen to lead the court as chief justice.

“He was the right person at the right time,” said retired state Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager, a former Black Hawk County District Court judge who was appointed to the top court in 2011 by Branstad after the retention vote. He retired in 2018.


“It was imperative that the court have someone with his steadiness at that very difficult time,” Zager said. “Under his leadership everything stabilized. He righted the ship. He led us out of a very bad place.”

Cady recognized the difficulty the court was in after the vote — the public had ousted nearly half the body. He handled the new role better than hoped for, said Boyd, who retired in 2017 after 40 years with the Judicial Branch.

“It was a very difficult time in the life of the Judicial Branch. Unless you were there in the middle of what we went through following that 2010 retention debacle it is truly hard to understand,” Boyd said.

“He took to it,” Boyd said, and took the court on the road, hearing oral arguments around the state, meeting with the public, often in schools.

“There were times when some of us wished he said ‘no’ once in a while, but that was not in his vocabulary,” Boyd said.

Cady also met with county clerks of courts, juvenile court officers, newspaper editorial boards as well as bar associations.

“He was one to always want to know how everybody in Judicial Branch was doing,” Boyd said.

Cady was very serious about transparency, Conlin added.

“Until he was chief justice, they didn’t leave chambers,” she said. “He had them traveling. He livestreamed oral arguments. I was just stunned by what he was able to do.”


Boyd noted Cady’s leadership on moving to electronic filing of court documents, specialty courts for drug offenders, veterans and business issues and advocacy for juvenile justice.

Cady was a “selfless public servant with a strong passion for the law and justice,” said Iowa House Speaker-select Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford.

“He was a strong advocate for fair, impartial courts and a great leader for civil and human rights in our state,” added Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines and House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, in a statement.

Like Varnum, Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, is among those whose lives have been personally affected by Cady’s opinions. He is an “Iowan who is married to my husband” because of the Varnum decision.

The history of Iowa “is filled with those who stood up against prevailing attitudes to do the right thing, and Justice Cady was one of those brave Iowans,” Price said. Along many other LGBTQ Americans, Price said he was heartbroken by Cady’s death. He hoped the chief justice’s family “can take comfort in knowing that he changed the lives of so many people.”

“Justice Cady changed not only Iowa, but America,” Price added. “He will be missed, but his legacy will forever live on in those whose lives were forever changed by his work.”

Erin Davison-Rippey, Iowa executive director of Planned Parenthood North Central States, said Iowa has lost “a great man who changed the lives of countless Iowans and tirelessly worked to protect their rights.”

Cady cited the Iowa Constitutions’ guarantee of due process and equal protection in striking down the state’s 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion.


That ruling then paved the way for the state’s 2018 six-week abortion ban to be struck down also, Davison-Rippey said.

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