When Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady strode into the Iowa House chamber in January 2011, it was no ordinary moment, and he would deliver no ordinary speech.
We lost Cady last week at age 66, leaving many of us jolted by the heartbreaking news to consider his legacy. And if moments of adversity reveal character, certainly his 2011 Condition of the Judiciary speech revealed much about the sort of public servant Cady was.
He spoke barely two months after Iowa voters ousted three of his Supreme Court colleagues amid a culture war conflagration sparked by the court’s unanimous Varnum ruling overturning Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriages. Cady wrote that landmark ruling.
He came to a House chamber now controlled by Republicans, including a few new representatives who floated the possibility of impeaching Cady and the rest of the court. Waiting in the wings to be inaugurated the same week was Gov. Terry Branstad, who appointed Cady, but who declined to defend the court in the face of religious conservatives bent on Varnum revenge.
“The chief of a shrinking Supreme Court tribe seemed nervous as he looked out through his dark-rimmed spectacles at the spectacle of a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on Wednesday,” I wrote in a column about the speech.
Cady could have sidestepped all of the elephants in the room. He could have given a quick, painless speech on judicial branch funding and high-tailed it back to the safety of the Judicial Building.
Instead, he met those elephants, head on. He calmly explained the court’s critical role, and educated us on its rich history. He defended Iowa’s merit-based judicial nominating system, and made high court candidate interviews public. Instead of circling the wagons in the face of attacks, Cady announced that the Supreme Court would be more transparent, hitting the road to hear cases outside of Des Moines.
Cady stuck to his principles, the law and the Constitution, as he did in so many rulings over the years, both routine and historic.
He defended the court’s duty to review legislative actions. “Upholding the constitution is the most important function of the courts,” said Cady, who wrote in Varnum our constitution could not tolerate a legislative marriage ban steeped in bigotry and discrimination.
Cady flatly rejected the idea that winds of popular opinion should bend or halt court rulings.
“Unlike our political institutions, courts serve the law. They serve the law, not the interests of constituents, not the demands of special interest groups and not the electorate’s reaction to a specific court decision,” Cady said, drawing an ovation from some in the joint assembly.
“As we said in Varnum, our constitution speaks with principle, and so do we,” Cady said.
His critics pounced. “He threw a match on the tinderbox,” one GOP senator said, while another compared it to “gasoline on a fire.” He, “should have stayed silent,” argued a Republican lawmaker.
They were wrong. Iowa’s highest court did reach out to Iowans. And when conservatives sought to oust Justice David Wiggins in 2012, they failed. Cady led the court through one of its most difficult and tumultuous storms.
Dark clouds have not fully cleared, of course. Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers sought to dramatically alter our judicial nominating system for partisan gain, and will try again. They meddled in the way the chief justice is chosen with hopes of demoting Cady. They still yearn for a court system that does their political bidding and abandons its sacred constitutional duty to protect the civil rights of all Iowans.
Cady is gone. But his principles and legacy will endure. And there are more elephants to face, head on.
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