DES MOINES — For the first time since 2011 and the third time ever, a woman — 4th District Judge Susan Christensen — will join the Iowa Supreme Court, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Wednesday.
The new justice from Harlan in Western Iowa will replace Bruce Zager of Waterloo, who retires Sept. 3 after 19 years as a judge, the last seven on the state’s highest court.
In seeking to replace Zager on the seven-member court, the nonpartisan Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed 21 applicants for the position and forwarded three finalists to the governor’s office.
All three finalists were women — Christensen, 1st District Judge Kellyann Lekar of Waterloo and lawyer Terri Combs of West Des Moines.
But Christensen, 56, was the only one of the three who would add a rural voice to the court.
She stressed that “geographical diversity” in her application and interview for the job.
“My husband, Jay, and I are both from Harlan and met in the first grade. We have been married for 37 years and are parents to five children and grandparents to four children,” she wrote. “We are experienced in owning our own businesses (Jay owns his optometry practice and until I become a judge, I owned my own legal practice) and understand the challenges which accompany entrepreneurship in rural Iowa.”
In her interview, she said she would seek to be a “voice at the table” in making decisions when budget cuts threaten access to rural courts.
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She said she would continue to live in Shelby County but commute to Des Moines for state Supreme Court business.
In addition to stressing the importance of the geographical difference, Christensen said she also would benefit the court’s makeup by adding trial court and juvenile justice experience.
In her application and interview, she noted that one of her children, Nicholas, was born with cerebral palsy. She recounted the process of how she and her husband learned to be parents of a disabled child, eventually helping him get a driver’s license and acquire skills for a job.
“As I have said throughout my journey as a mother of a handicapped child, if Nicholas were cured tomorrow — if he could walk and talk like other people — I would not want to change how his disability has affected my life,” she wrote. “I am a better person because of him, and I believe this is reflected in the way I handle myself as a wife, mother, friend or judge.”
The appointment marks the first time Reynolds has named anyone to the Iowa Supreme Court since she assumed the governorship last year.
“Iowans need judges who are smart, thoughtful and hardworking,” she said in prepared remarks. “We need judges who understand the proper role of the courts within our government. Judges who will apply the law, not make it. Judges who will decide cases based upon the text of our statutes and constitution, not their personal policy preferences.”
Christensen is the daughter of former state Supreme Court Justice Jerry Larson, Iowa’s longest-serving justice. Larson, who served from 1978 to 2008, died in April at age 81.
“My dad is here with me today in spirit,” Christensen said, “and I know he has a huge smile on his face right now.”
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Chief Justice Mark Cady welcomed Christensen to the court and thanked Reynolds and the Judicial Nominating Commission for picking “three outstanding candidates” as finalists.
“She is extremely well-qualified and is a fine jurist,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to serving with her and to having her vision and experience become a part of our state’s highest court.”
No date was given for when Christensen will join the court. Under Iowa rules, she will face a retention vote in 2020. If voters agree to retain her, she would serve a term of eight years before facing another vote.
The job pays more than $170,000 a year.
“To my soon new colleagues on the Iowa Supreme Court, I look forward to working with you and dusting off the ladies’ room,” Christensen said Wednesday.
Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.