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Iowa Supreme Court

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Iowa Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   7
Founded:   1846
Chief:  $179,000
Associates:  $171,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Assisted appointment
Term:   8 years
Active justices

Mark Cady  •  David Wiggins  •  Daryl Hecht  •  Brent Appel  •  Edward Mansfield  •  Bruce B. Zager  •  Thomas Waterman  •  

Seal of Iowa.png

The Iowa Supreme Court is the court of last resort for the state of Iowa. The court is composed of seven justices who serve eight-year terms. Justices are chosen through a commission-selection, political appointment method, and stand for retention in order to serve subsequent terms.[1][2]


The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected by
Chief Justice Mark Cady1998-2016Gov. Terry E. Branstad
Justice David Wiggins2003-2020Gov. Tom Vilsack
Justice Daryl Hecht2006-2016Gov. Tom Vilaack
Justice Brent Appel2006-2016Gov. Tom Vilsack
Justice Edward Mansfield2011-2020Gov. Terry E. Branstad
Justice Bruce B. Zager2011-2020Gov. Terry E. Branstad
Justice Thomas Waterman2011-2020Gov. Terry E. Branstad

Judicial selection

In 1962, a constitutional amendment was passed which changed the court's method of judicial selection to a commission-selection, political appointment method, sometimes referred to as "merit selection". This amendment applies to all appellate and district court justices. Judicial nominees are selected by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. The governor then makes the appointment from the list submitted by the commission. One year after the appointment, the justice must stand for retention in the next general election. If they are not retained, their term ends on January 1 following the election. Once retained, justices serve for eight-year terms. The mandatory retirement age for justices is 72.[3][4]


Justices must be lawyers admitted to practice in Iowa. They must be able to serve a full term of office before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72.[3]

Chief justice

The justices of the court elect their chief justice. The term of chief justice matches that justice's regular term on the court.[5]


All appeals in Iowa go first to the state supreme court, which then decides to take on the appeal or send it down to the Iowa Court of Appeals. The supreme court also has administrative and supervisory powers over the state's judiciary.[6][2]


The Iowa Supreme Court does not provide specific numbers on its yearly caseload. According to a state judiciary publication, however:

  • Approximately 2,000 appeals are filed with the supreme court each year.
  • Of those, criminal appeals represent nearly 30%, appeals involving the termination of parental rights and children in need of assistance represent 25 percent and family law appeals represent almost 20%.[7]


Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Iowa was given a campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Iowa received a score of 0.21. Based on the justices selected, Iowa was the 15th most conservative court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[8]


Judicial conduct

The Iowa Commission on Judicial Qualifications is responsible for handling judicial misconduct. The Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct, which became effective May 3, 2010, lays out 4 canons. Each canon has several specific sub-rules which can be read here.

  • Canon 1: A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
  • Canon 2: A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.
  • Canon 3: A judge shall conduct the judge's personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.
  • Canon 4: A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.[9][10]

Removal of justices

Iowa judges may be removed by:

  1. Impeachment - requires a majority vote of the house of representatives and conviction by two-thirds of the senate.
  2. The Iowa Judicial Qualifications Commission - the commission investigates complaints of misconduct and may recommend that the supreme court remove a justice from office. The supreme court may not discipline or remove judges or justices without a report from this commission.[11][12]
  3. Voters - Justices must be retained by voters at the end of their terms. If they do not receive a majority of votes in favor of their retention, they must leave the court.

2010 removal of justices

See also: News: Three Iowa Supreme Court justices ousted from court, November 3, 2010

In the 2010 election, three supreme court justices--David Baker, Marsha Ternus and Michael Streit--were voted off the court. This was the first time any supreme court justice was not retained since the retention system began in 1962. The removal was linked to backlash from the court's 2009 ruling in Varnum v. Brien that removed the state's ban on gay marriage (see "Notable decisions" section below for details). The three justices had supported the removal of the ban and faced retention opposition from groups that opposed gay marriage.[13]

Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Iowa earned a grade of F in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[14]

Notable cases


The Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines, Iowa

In 1846, Iowa joined the United States. Following the constitution of the federal government, the powers of the government in Iowa were divided into the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. In the judicial branch, the General Assembly divided the state into four judicial districts, and supreme court justices were to serve six-year terms, while district judges were elected for five-year terms. The Iowa Constitution of 1857 increased the judicial districts from four to 11, and allowed the General Assembly to reorganize districts after 1860 and every four years thereafter.[25]

Notable firsts

  • In Re the Matter of Ralph was the first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court, which occurred in July 1839.
  • Iowa was the first state to admit women to the practice of law in 1869.[24]

Former justices

See also

External links


  1. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Court Structure," accessed September 26, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 Iowa Judicial Branch, "Iowa Supreme Court," accessed September 26, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 Iowa Judicial Branch, "Guide to Iowa's Court System," December 2005
  4. Iowa Judicial Branch, "20th Century Reforms," accessed September 26, 2014
  5. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Supreme Court Justices," accessed September 26, 2014
  6. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Courts at a Glance," accessed September 26, 2014
  7. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Guide to Iowa's Court System"
  8. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  9. Iowa Commission on Judicial Qualifications, "Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct," accessed September 26, 2014
  10. 10.0 10.1 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  11. American Judicature Society, "Methods of Selection: Removal of Judges," accessed September 26, 2014
  12. Iowa Judicial Qualifications Commission
  13. USA Today, "Iowa ousts 3 judges after gay marriage ruling," November 4, 2010
  14. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Insurance Journal, "Court: Iowa farmers who host tours can be liable," February 19, 2013
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Des Moines Register, "Farmers who host field trips are liable, Iowa court rules," February 15, 2013
  17. The Boston Herald, "Iowa Supreme Court considers gay marriage ban," December 9, 2008
  18. Fox News, "Iowa Supreme Court to Hear Gay Marriage Arguments," December 7, 2008
  19. NBC News, "Iowa Supreme Court legalizes gay marriage," April 3, 2009
  20. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Varnum v. Brien Case Summary," April 6, 2009
  21. 21.0 21.1 Chicago Tribune, "Impact of Iowa ruling Debated by Both Sides in Indiana," April 4, 2009
  22. 22.0 22.1 UPI, "Iowa Marriage Ruling good for Business," April 4, 2009
  23. Des Moines Register, "2,020 gay marriages recorded here since last April," May 18, 2010
  24. 24.0 24.1 Iowa Courts, "A Brief History"
  25. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Early History," accessed September 26, 2014
  26. Iowa Judicial Branch, "Past Iowa Supreme Court Justices," accessed September 26, 2014
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