DES MOINES — In his parting remarks, retiring Iowa Supreme Court justice Bruce Zager implored Iowans to protect the state’s system of selecting judges and state leaders to fully fund Iowa’s court system.
Zager was honored with a ceremony Wednesday in the Iowa Supreme Court chambers in Des Moines.
Zager joined the Iowa Supreme Court in 2011 amid political upheaval: He was one of three justices appointed after social conservatives in 2010 led a successful movement to oust judges after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2009 in favor of same-sex marriage.
In his final official remarks as a Supreme Court justice, Zager said Iowans must keep the state’s judicial retention system, which he said is “constantly under attack.” He praised the quality of judges on Iowa’s Supreme Court and throughout the state’s court system, and said that quality is a direct result of the retention system.
In Iowa, high-court judges are not elected. Rather, they are appointed by the governor based on committee recommendations. In each general election, voters then choose whether to retain each judge.
“It is the best process around,” Zager said in his retirement remarks to dozens of family, friends and colleagues. “We must do whatever we can to endorse that.”
Zager also said state leaders must fully fund the state court system. The courts were required to make midyear budget cuts each of the past two state budget years: They were forced to trim $3 million in the 2016-17 budget year and another $1.6 million in 2017-18.
“It takes money. It takes fully funding our court system. It can’t be considered a (state) department,” Zager said. “We have to continually push for full funding of our court system.”
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Zager grew up in Waterloo, ran a private practice there for 18 years and during that time worked for 13 years in the Black Hawk County Attorney’s Office. He then served as a district court judge in Waterloo for 13 years.
Zager was appointed to the district court by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack and to the Iowa Supreme Court by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.
“He was never beholden to ideology,” said Rick Sole, an attorney from Cedar Rapids and childhood friend of Zager’s.
Said Thomas Levis, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, “(Zager) always had that unique ability to see both sides of a dispute. That’s why he’s such an amazing justice.”
Zager will be replaced by Susan Christensen, who was appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Christensen becomes the Iowa Supreme Court’s only female justice, although she is not the high court’s first female justice.
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