Staff Columnist

Iowa court no longer a men's club

Iowa Supreme Court justices gathered in 2015 to listen to the Condition of the State address at the Iowa Statehouse. Pictured, from left, are Bruce Zager, Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Brent Appel, Daryl Hecht, David Wiggins, and Chief Justice Mark Cady. Gov. Kim Reynolds appointed Susan Christensen to fill a vacancy created by Zager’s upcoming retirement, marking the third woman in state history a woman will serve on the high court. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa Supreme Court justices gathered in 2015 to listen to the Condition of the State address at the Iowa Statehouse. Pictured, from left, are Bruce Zager, Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Brent Appel, Daryl Hecht, David Wiggins, and Chief Justice Mark Cady. Gov. Kim Reynolds appointed Susan Christensen to fill a vacancy created by Zager’s upcoming retirement, marking the third woman in state history a woman will serve on the high court. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

With the Judicial Nominating Commission elevating three female candidates to fill an Iowa Supreme Court vacancy, it was a foregone conclusion that the state’s high court would, for only the third time in state history, have a lone female member. But state residents should still take time to celebrate the selection of Susan Christensen to the bench — and restart the conversation on the need for greater judicial diversity.

Christensen, a 56-year-old district court judge from western Iowa and registered Republican, will replace Bruce Zager, retiring in September. Because of Iowa’s transparent selection process, the public has access to her full application and video of her commission interview.

“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 after being appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. It’s the first time since 2010 that the high court has had a female justice, which made Iowa a national outlier.

The situation sullied the reputation of a long-standing Iowa merit-based process that has won national acclaim for its impartiality and ability to rise above divisive politics.

Unlike in other states, Iowa justices are not elected. Finalists are selected by a nonpartisan commission, and later stand for public retention. It’s a key reason why the Iowa judiciary is viewed as a beacon of independence.

That said, Iowans must find a way to encourage more women and minority group members to pursue not only judicial appointments, but advancement within the judicial branch.

As Chief Justice Mark Cady said in a 2016 interview with the Iowa State Bar Association, “I don’t like the optics of our court.”

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Statewide, he noted, gender diversity on district and associate courts is roughly 30 percent. The nine-member Iowa Court of Appeals includes four women, and at least two members of a minority group.

“What it means for the Supreme Court is we have to stop and try to think: ‘OK, what are we missing?’” Cady said.

Iowa — a state known for racial disparities within its criminal justice system — has never elevated an African American to the high court’s bench. Only two of 22 applicants for the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy self-identified as other than white. Neither of those two was selected as a finalist.

The state’s inability to make judicial diversity a priority calls into question the ability of our courts to make fair decisions and meet the broader mission of equal justice for all. It’s a disparity — and, perhaps, an implicit bias — within the system the nonpartisan nominating commission would be unwise to willfully ignore because it chips away at the court’s legitimacy.

The entire point of appealing court decisions to a group of justices is the benefit of a broad range of perspectives. Yet, even after the much-needed appointment of Christensen, Iowans would be hard-pressed to say the high court meets such a standard.

Differences in gender, race, educational background, cultural upbringing and more provide a broad variety of life experiences. Judicial systems, like all other public bodies, work best when they reflect the diverse groups of people they serve.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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