DES MOINES — Mark Cady was described as a man who was endlessly kind and devoted his life to the law and justice, a capable public speaker and advocate who was disarming with a wonderful sense of humor.
A former colleague described how it was pure chance that Cady came to write the history-making Iowa Supreme Court decision for which he will long be remembered.
Chief Justice Cady died Friday of a heart attack. He was 66.
Cady was honored Wednesday with a public celebration of life at Drake University, from which he earned his bachelor’s and law degrees. An estimated 1,500 people attended the event, a Drake official said.
“What words shared over a period of a few minutes can possibly capture the essence of a life so rich with purpose, meaning, accomplishment and impact,” said Mark Brownlee, a longtime friend of Cady’s.
The Rev. Dr. David Ruhe said Cady’s passing was “dumbfounding to us all.”
Nathan Hecht, the Texas Supreme Court chief justice who will succeed Cady as president of the national Conference of Chief Justices, said the outpouring in the wake of Cady’s death has come from all corners of the country.
“Warm, caring, dedicated to improving justice, with a wonderful sense of humor, a great role model,” Hecht said. “All these words in testament to Mark Cady, like an artist’s strokes on an enormous canvas, paint a portrait of Chief Justice Cady: soft spoken but strong, smiling but serious about his work, learned but laughing ... distinguished, exceptional, respected and humble, most of all beloved. ...
“Iowa has lost an extraordinary judge and statesman. You know that well. I can tell you this: so has the country.”
Marsha Ternus, who preceded Cady as chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, described Cady as “quite simply the nicest guy you could ever hope to meet.”
She also revealed how Cady came to write the decision for which he will most be remembered: the Iowa high court’s 2009 unanimous decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
Ternus said the justices drew case assignments randomly from a bag, and Cady drew Varnum v. Brien.
“Iowa was fortunate that he drew that case,” said Ternus, who was chief justice at the time. “Mark drafted a principled decision based on legal concepts long applied by Iowa courts. He wrote eloquently, putting our decision in the context of Iowa’s rich history of upholding Iowans’ civil rights. And ever aware that courts are here for the people, Mark made a considerable effort to write the court’s opinion in a manner that could be readily understood, not only by lawyers familiar with legal terminology, but by all Iowans.”
Ternus and two other justices lost their seats on the court after conservative groups mobilized to oppose them in the state’s 2010 retention elections in protest of the court’s decision.
Cady succeeded Ternus as chief justice.
“It was a wonderful moment for Mark. I know, though, that his achievement was bittersweet for him because he mourned the loss of his three colleagues,” Ternus said. “That was Mark. He was one of the most empathetic persons I have ever known.”
The Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus sang opening and closing songs at Wednesday’s ceremony: “America the Beautiful” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
Brownlee closed his remarks with a tribute to Cady’s legal career.
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“I choose to think of this proceeding as Mark’s final investiture: an investiture into Iowa judicial immortality,” Brownlee said. “With that Mr. Chief Justice, I rest. So shall you, my great friend.”