The Iowa Supreme Court is the highest court in the U.S. state of Iowa. The Court is composed of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices.
The Court holds its regular sessions in Des Moines in the Iowa Judicial Branch Building located at 1111 East Court Avenue on the state Capitol grounds, south of the Iowa State Capitol.
In 1846, Iowa became the 29th state to join 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. The Iowa 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 Constitution of Iowa of 1857 increased the number of judicial districts to 11, and allowed the General Assembly to reorganize districts after 1860 and every four years thereafter.
The Supreme Court of Iowa is an appellate court. An appellate court reviews decisions of trial courts in which appeals have been allowed. An appellate court does not preside over trials. Appellate court hearings do not involve witnesses, juries, new evidence, or court reporters. Instead, an appellate court reviews the written record of the trial court to determine whether any significant legal errors occurred. The Rules of Appellate Procedure list the requirements for filing an appeal.
The seven-member Supreme Court of Iowa has many important responsibilities.
- The Court is the “court of last resort” or the highest court in the Iowa state court system. Its opinions are binding on all other Iowa state courts.
- The Iowa Supreme Court has the sole power to admit persons to practice as attorneys in the courts of Iowa, to prescribe rules to supervise attorney conduct, and to discipline attorneys.
- The Court is responsible for promulgating rules of procedure and practice used throughout the state courts.
- The Supreme Court has supervisory and administrative control over the judicial branch and over all judicial officers and court employees.
Justices are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees submitted by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. A justice serves an initial term consisting of one year plus whatever time remains until the January 1st that follows the next judicial retention election after the expiration of the one year period. The regular term of office of justices retained at election is eight years. A justice must retire upon reaching the age of 72. The justices elect the chief justice. Terms end on December 31 of the year listed.
|Justice||Born||Term start||Term expires||Reaches age 72||Law school||Appointing governor|
|Susan Christensen, Chief Justice||April 27, 1962||September 21, 2018[a]||2028||2034||Creighton||Kim Reynolds (R)|
|Brent R. Appel||July 13, 1950||December 2006||2024||2022||UC Berkeley||Tom Vilsack (D)|
|Christopher McDonald||1974 (age 46–47)||February 20, 2019||2028||2046||Iowa||Kim Reynolds (R)|
|Edward Mansfield||January 12, 1957||February 2011||2028||2029||Yale||Terry Branstad (R)|
|Thomas D. Waterman||1959 (age 61–62)||February 2011||2020||2031||Iowa||Terry Branstad (R)|
|Dana Oxley||December 27, 1967||January 29, 2020||2022||2039||Iowa||Kim Reynolds (R)|
|Matthew McDermott||November 22, 1977||April 3, 2020||2022||2049||UC Berkeley||Kim Reynolds (R)|
- Associate Justice from September 21, 2018 to February 24, 2020
The Court had three vacancies following the defeat of three justices in the November 2, 2010, retention election. Those vacancies were filled in February 2011 by the appointments of Edward Mansfield, Thomas D. Waterman, and Bruce Zager. In March 2011, the Court voted for Justice Mark Cady to continue as Chief Justice, and he served until his death in November 2019.
In re Ralph, a colored man 
In re Ralph, a colored man, began Iowa’s jurisprudence on July 4, 1839 in what was then the Territory of Iowa. As the first published opinion of the Supreme Court of Iowa it was decided twenty six years before the 13th Amendment, eighteen years before Dred Scott, and seven years before Iowa would be granted statehood. A black man from Missouri, Ralph, was allowed to travel to Iowa to work, in an attempt to purchase his freedom. When Ralph was unable to obtain the amount needed the slave owner sent bounty hunters to return Ralph to Missouri. The opinion denied the slave owner while giving Ralph his freedom, expounding that the law “extend[s] equal protection to men of all colors and conditions”.
In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Clark v. Board of School Directors, ruling that racially segregated “separate but equal” schools had no place in Iowa, 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.
In 1869, Iowa became the first state in the union to admit women to the practice of law, with the Court ruling that women may not be denied the right to practice law in Iowa and admitting Arabella Mansfield to the practice of law.
Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co.
The Court heard Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co. in 1873, ruling against racial discrimination in public accommodations 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.
On April 3, 2009, in Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously struck down a statutory same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional, joining the highest judicial bodies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and Hawaii as the fifth court to rule for the right of same-sex marriage under the state constitution. At the next judicial retention election in 2010, voters removed all three justices facing a retention vote. It was the first time any Iowa Supreme Court justice had been removed by voters. Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, Justice Michael Streit, and Justice David L. Baker each received support from 45% or less of voters.
Nelson v. Knight
Marissa Nelson, a dental assistant, filed suit against her former employer Dr. James Knight, who had terminated her employment at the insistence of his wife. Nelson had previously been texting Knight about personal matters outside of work. On December 21, 2012, the court issued a 7-0 decision siding with Knight. The opinion, authored by Edward Mansfield, held that the termination of Nelson’s employment did not constitute unlawful sex discrimination.
Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds
The Court heard arguments in a lawsuit brought against the state of Iowa and the Iowa Board of Medicine by Planned Parenthood and Dr. Jill Meadows regarding a 72-hour waiting period to receive an abortion enacted by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Terry Branstad in 2017. The Court decided in a 5-2 majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Mark Cady, that the waiting period violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution because its restrictions “are not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest of the state.” Justice Cady argued that the state can inform women about abortion, including providing information about adoption, but that a 72-hour waiting period does not serve this interest sufficiently narrowly and imposes an undue burden on Iowan women.
- Iowa Supreme Court: History Archived 2010-05-28 at the Wayback Machine
- National Center for State Courts. Iowa Judicial Branch. Archived 2009-06-17 at the Wayback Machine
- Schulte, Grant (January 14, 2011). “High court’s four justices get back to hearing cases”. The Des Moines Register. Retrieved January 15, 2011.[permanent dead link]
- Sulzberger, A. G. (November 3, 2010). “Ouster of Iowa Judges Sends Signal to Bench”. The New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2021.
- “Branstad names Mansfield, Waterman and Zager to Iowa Supreme Court”. Bleeding Heartland. February 23, 2011. Retrieved April 9, 2021.
- “How Iowa could have lost three Supreme Court justices in 2016”. Bleeding Heartland. November 10, 2017. Retrieved April 9, 2021.
- Krogstad, Jens (March 31, 2011). “Cady will continue as chief justice”. The Des Moines Register. Retrieved April 8, 2011.[permanent dead link]
- Pitt, David (November 16, 2019). “Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady dies unexpectedly”. Associated Press. Retrieved April 9, 2021.
- In re Ralph, 1 Morris 1 (1839)
- In re Ralph, 1 Morris 1, 7 (1839)
- 24 Iowa 266 (1868)
- Longden, Tom. “Alexander G. Clark”. Data Central. Des Moines Register. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
- “Civil Rights”. Iowa Judicial Branch. Retrieved February 28, 2020.
- 37 Iowa 145 (1873)
- 763 N.W.2d 862 (Iowa 2009);WL 874044 (Iowa 2009)
- Eckhoff, Jeff; Schulte, Grant (April 3, 2009). “Unanimous ruling: Iowa marriage no longer limited to one man, one woman”. The Des Moines Register. Archived from the original on June 29, 2012. Retrieved January 14, 2011.
- A.G. Sulzberger (3 November 2010). “Ouster of Iowa Judges Sends Signal to Bench”. The New York Times. p. A1. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
- Nelson v. Knight, No. 11-1857 (Iowa Dec. 21, 2012).
- Bible, Jon (30 June 2013). “KEEPING CURRENT: Nelson v. Knight: Can a Worker Be Fired for Being Too Irresistible?”. Business Law Today. Retrieved 14 October 2020.
- Leys, Tony; Gruber-Miller, Stephen (29 June 2018). “Iowa Supreme Court rejects law requiring a 72 hour abortion waiting period”. Des Moines Register. Retrieved 29 June 2018.