Public Safety

Can a woman find her way onto the all male Iowa Supreme Court? This time, likely yes

With the three finalists for the open supreme court spot being women, the 'elephant in the room' may finally be addressed

Alice Clapman of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Washington, D.C. argues the Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds case at the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Alice Clapman of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Washington, D.C. argues the Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds case at the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in Des Moines, Iowa.
/

Some say the “elephant in the room” couldn’t be ignored this time around when a vacancy opened on the Iowa Supreme Court.

Iowa is the only state that has an all-male Supreme Court, according to the National Center for State Courts.

So when Justice Bruce Zager announced he would retire in September, 14 of the 21 applicants to replace him were women — a larger percentage than in past judicial openings.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

The three finalists — 1st Judicial District Judge Kellyann Lekar; Des Moines attorney Terri Combs; and 4th Judicial District Judge Susan Christiansen — are all women.

Barring any unexpected surprises, the governor will appoint one of the three, and a woman will join the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court this fall.

Only two women have been appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court — Linda K. Neuman in 1986 and Marsha Ternus in 1993. Newman, the first woman to be appointed, retired in 2003. Ternus, originally from Benton County, was voted off the court in 2010, along with two other justices, after the court’s unanimous ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Even with those three forced vacancies, only 12 women were among the 60 who applied to replace the ousted justices. One woman was named as a finalist but was not chosen for one of the seats.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

In the past 40 years, 20 vacancies have opened on the state Supreme Court. In each case, six women or fewer applied for each opening.

This year, given that elephant in Iowa, several organizations teamed up to encourage more women to apply.

First, a webinar was offered statewide detailing the process of applying to become a justice.

Then a “boot camp” was held in Des Moines for women interested in applying for the Supreme Court opening.

Those attending went through mock interviews, with questions taken from past interviews before the Judicial Nominating Commission,

Lawyers and judges critiqued the mock interviews and offered tips on what the applicants should focus on.

The boot camp was sponsored by the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys and Polk County Women Attorneys, along with the Iowa State Bar Association.

Des Moines attorney Christina Thompson, past president of Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys, said the organizations have long talked about the general problem of gender balance in the courts and in leadership positions in law firms.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

So it was just the matter of “herding the cats” to get bar members to reach out to talented, qualified women applicants and encourage them to apply for the Supreme Court vacancy.

Kathleen O’Neill, an administrative law judge with the Iowa Department Inspections and Appeals and president of Polk County Women Attorneys, wrote a letter to the commission before the interviews, urging them to nominate women.

“We are not asking that you choose a woman simply because she is a woman, but because she presents the qualifications, experience and temperament befitting of the position of a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court,” O’Neill wrote. “Diversity is a key element to counteract bias and support a fair and impartial court,” she continued. “Gender affects interactions and matters in the confidence of the justice system.”

U.S. Magistrate Celeste Bremer of the Southern District said she been working on gender and diversity issues in the legal profession since 1977.

Sidebar

In Iowa, when there's an opening on the state Supreme Court, people apply for the job.

Continue Reading

She said the Polk County Women Attorneys and the Iowa Organization of Women Attorneys have been working with state bar association’s federal practice committee and its diversity and inclusion committees to host webinars like the one offered last month.

It’s part of a continuing effort to get women in the “pipeline” for judicial appointments and onto partnership tracks at law firms.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“The intent has been to have women thinking about applying for judgeships and to be ready when vacancies open,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.