For the court: A screenwriter, a ventriloquist, “Felix.” Matt Whitaker can eliminate his greatest regret
If Tim Finn of Ames isn’t named to the Iowa Supreme Court, perhaps he could write a screenplay about the drama that led to the Election Day Massacre of three justices from that court.
“I enjoy writing short stories and have written one screenplay (“Riley’s Instructions”) which I entered into the Nicholl’s Screenwriting Competition of the Academy Awards (and I was one of the 7,000 entries which did not win!). I am currently doing research on a second screenplay about a young photographer in Iowa at the time of ‘The Spirit Lake Massacre,’” Finn notes in his application for the court.
That’s one of the nuggets gleaned from reading the 60 applications that the Judicial Nominating Commission will sift through as it comes up with nine names to send to Gov. Terry Branstad, a list from which he will pick the three replacements for the ousted Marsha Ternus, Michael Streit and David Baker.
It was, as you could guess, a slow weekend at the Skinny household.
Finn, 62, a well-respected district judge from Ames, probably has a good shot at being on the list of nine. He was a finalist for the court in 2001, when Gov. Tom Vilsack chose Streit. And, as he notes in his application, no judge has been elevated directly to the supreme court from the district bench since 1986 — and some lawyers (and, especially, district court judges) think it’s time for another.
Some other nuggets from the applications of the lawyers, who are being interviewed by the commission this week:
Joel Greer, a Marshalltown lawyer who is also well-thought-of around the state, wrote: “There is no adverse information to be disclosed, unless it is that I smoked three packs of Marlboros per day, for nine years, for which part of the penance is volunteering a lot of time and energy and money in the fight against cancer. My wife and daughters suspect I have [obsessive-compulsive] tendencies, too. My mother-in-law calls me Felix.”
From Des Moines lawyer Steven Lawyer: “I regularly volunteered (two to three times a month) in the computer lab and library at my eldest son’s elementary school during his first and second grade years. The children particularly liked it when I came to read for library, as I did so with the assistance of ‘Jack Jackson’, a ventriloquist dummy that would sit on my knee.”
From Marti Dee Nerenstone, a Council Bluffs lawyer: “I enjoy music, especially old-time/traditional music. I play clawhammer style 5-string banjo, fiddle, guitar, and hammer dulcimer. I am a member of a four-person string band, and play banjo with another string band for monthly barn dances. Over the last several years, our groups have performed at various nursing homes, assisted living facilities, private parties, churches, dances, and farmers’ markets. I enjoy being outside and working around my acreage. I plant an annual vegetable garden, which I maintain organically. I enjoy horseback riding, and taking care of my two horses. I also enjoy reading and spending time with my golden retriever. All of these activities keep me involved in the community in a variety of roles and help me be a well-rounded person.”
Interruption. Branstad told The Des Moines Register over the weekend that “I feel an important obligation and responsibility as the chief executive of the state and the person who does make the appointments, to try and choose the very best people — people who I think share the philosophy of judicial restraint that I think most Iowans believe the courts should exercise.”
This was shortly after Branstad announced that Iowa would join the score or so of other states that are challenging the new health-care law enacted by Congress last year, which is not exactly asking the courts to exercise judicial restraint. “Now that the new governor has committed Iowa to join the challenge to the Obama health care legislation as unconstitutional, how can he reconcile any success in that court case with his view that judges lack authority to overturn legislative enactments?” one Iowa lawyer e-mailed Skinny last week. Answer: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Back to the nuggets.
Matthew Noel, 34, of Dubuque, has been out of law school for just 2 1/2 years. Before that, he spent eight years as an electrician. “I believe I would bring a point of view that is usually absent from Appellate Courts,” he notes in his application. “I want to make a different.” Also bringing some diversity: TV journalist and lawyer George Davison of Des Moines and Don McGuire Jr., of Algona, who was a pharmacist before he became a lawyer.
From the application of Robert James Blink, a district judge in Des Moines: “I have sold photography under the pseudonym DeRechter Photography as a sole proprietorship — with limited success.”
Elisabeth Reynoldson of Osceola, an assistant attorney general, doesn’t mention in her application that she is the daughter-in-law of Ward Reynoldson, the wonderful Iowan who was on the court from 1971-87 and was Chief Justice from 1978 to his retirement. (Skinny long kept on his desk a photo of Reynoldson wearing an election-year T-shirt that said “Retain Reynoldson.” Asked about it by the Chief, Skinny explained: “I thought it said Restrain Reynoldson.”)
And assistant attorney general Jeanie Vaudt — summa cum laude graduate of Upper Iowa University and, according to her application, homecoming queen in 1976 — doesn’t mention that she is the wife of State Auditor David Vaudt.
There’s no reason, of course, for either applicant to mention those relationships, nor is there reason for Davenport lawyer Thomas Dana Waterman to mention that his great-grandfather, Charles M. Waterman, was on the court more than 100 years ago. But Waterman does, in fact, note that as well as the fact that he gets up every day at 4 a.m., is “accustomed to hard work” and is “always among the top billing attorneys at our 45-lawyer firm.” Waterman was on the three-candidate list sent to Vilsack in 2008, when the governor instead chose Dave Wiggins — who now chairs the Judicial Nominating Commission. Oddsmakers also think Waterman has a real shot at being on the list of nine.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a 37-year-old law professor at the University of Iowa (and, according to her application, the first black president of the Grinnell College student body), brought a little history to her application:
“The time is ripe for adding a legal scholar to the Iowa Supreme Court. Law faculty played a critical role during the early years of the Iowa Supreme Court. Two of the early Justices on the court, George C. Wright (1855-60) and Chester C. Cole (1864-76), were the founders and first two faculty members of the Law Department of Iowa in Des Moines, which later became the law school at the University of Iowa; Cole also founded Drake University Law School in 1881. A few others who taught law followed Cole and Wright on the court. A legal academic, however, has not served on the Iowa Supreme Court for more than 75 years (since the service of Justice Lawrence DeGraff, who taught at Highland Park College of Law). Adding me to the Iowa Supreme Court at this time would allow the court to recapture the diversity reflected in this early history and tradition of including legal academics.” She notes, also, that “I bring important racial and gender diversity to the court.” Indeed, the court has never had a black justice and has had only two women — though with the ouster of Ternus there now are none.
The applications disclose a few brushes with the law, mostly youthful hijinks.
“I was arrested at a University of Colorado football game in September 1972 for throwing a lime on the playing field. I pled guilty to this municipal infraction and was fined $25 plus court costs,” notes Bruce Zager, now a 58-year-old district court judge in Waterloo.
Greer, now 57, pleaded guilty to drunken driving in 1981. “I fell asleep at the wheel. I paid the fine, served the time, suffered the front-page ignominy, got counseling, got married, got sober and have not had any problems since,” he says in his application.
Diana Linda Dornburg, a Des Moines lawyer, notes intriguingly: “I was the defendant in a dog-bark case, which was dismissed.”
The firm of former Iowa football star and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker of Des Moines was on the losing side in the case arguing that the whole selection process of justices in Iowa is unconstitutional. Federal Judge Robert Pratt ruled against Whitaker’s firm’s clients last week. But, liking the process or not, Whitaker himself has applied for the court, and he closed his application with a little lecture.
“I am uniquely positioned to help the court reach out to Iowans that believe the court has wandered beyond its constitutional authority,” he wrote. “...I have applied for this position in good faith and I would expect that this commission, selecting candidates for the Iowa Supreme Court, would consider my application in good faith. The people of Iowa are watching this process carefully and we all owe them a serious and honest process that selects our next justices.”
Whitaker also noted, in answer to a question on the application about military service, that “I did not have the honor of serving in the United States Military and it is one of the greatest regrets of my life.”
If Whitaker, who is 41 years old and appears to be in great shape, isn’t named to the Court, he still could overcome that great regret. The United States Army takes active-duty enlistees up to age 42. CV