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Rants & Reason

Oyez! Oyez! God save our independent judiciary

9/4/2019

…from the U.S. Senate and the Iowa governor

Welcome to September. Congress is back in session, and Supreme Courts begin their 2019-2020 terms — the U.S. Oct. 1 and Iowa Sept. 2. In a related concern, the Iowa legislature convenes Jan. 13.

What this may mean is a rekindling of threats to the independence of our judicial system from the executive and legislative branches and from citizens who favor bigotry over the rule of law.

Iowa’s U.S. Senator Grassley left the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee in late 2018 — opting to chair the Finance Committee. Under his chairmanship during the Trump administration, the committee advanced more than 80 federal judicial nominees to confirmation, including two Supreme Court justices — Neil Gorsuch in April 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh last October.

Significantly, Grassley also was the handmaiden of Senate Majority Leader McConnell in blocking then President Obama’s nomination of federal appellate judge Merrick Garland to the high court.

The debate over Garland and related issues in Iowa hinges on protecting an “independent judiciary.”

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Grassley and McConnnell had argued what voters wanted in November 2016 should help determine Supreme Court appointments.

In Iowa, Gov. Reynolds and the GOP legislature — in the waning hours of the 2019 session — further politicized the Iowa judiciary by increasing the influence they already had in choosing which judges would be most likely to support what their branches of government want to do.

That approach, however, is contrary to having a check and balance system in government. And that approach belies the outstanding record of the Iowa judiciary in basing government on the rule of law and not on partisanship or mob rule.

The record of the Iowa judiciary should be a point of pride — not a source of partisan concern.

No state can surpass the outstanding civil rights decisions of Iowa’s independent judiciary in the 19th century and since:

• In its first decision, the Iowa Supreme Court in July 1839 ruled a man named Ralph, a Missouri slave working in Iowa to earn enough to purchase his freedom, did not have to be returned to his slave master even though he had not paid $550 (about $15,000 today) to get out of bondage. The court decreed, “No man in this territory can be reduced to slavery.” That was 18 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott that fugitive slaves had to be returned to their owner and 22 years before the Civil War decided in the issue in bloody fashion.

• 1868: The Iowa Court decided in Clark v. The Board of Directors, involving a 12-year-old black schoolgirl, that segregated schools were inherently unequal because “the law makes no distinction as to the right of children … to attend the common schools.” That was 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

• 1869: The Iowa Court was the first in the nation to admit a woman to the practice of law.

• 1873: In Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co., the Iowa Court ruled a black steamboat passenger should be treated the same as white passengers, a public accommodations decision not made nationally until 1964.

To Iowa’s credit, those landmark decisions drew little hostile reaction from Iowans and the other branches of government. Not so, the 2009 decision in Varnum v. Breen, in which the Iowa court ruled 7-0 that the state’s ban of same-sex marriages violated the equal protection clause of the state Constitution.

In the 2010 election, three justices — Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker — were voted off the court in a non-retention vote that may have focused more on views of marriage than it did on the need for an independent judiciary.

In 2012, the three justices received the John F. Kennedy Library Profile in Courage Award — named after JFK’s 1957 Pulitzer-Prize winning book about the bravery and integrity of eight U.S. senators.

Iowa is no stranger to such awards and peer recognition.

Chief Justice Mark S. Cady was recently named president of the Conference of Chief Justices and chair of the National Center for State Courts — an honor previously held by Chief Justices W. Ward Reynoldson and Arthur McGivern.

In 2010, the nation’s Integrated Justice Information System recognized the work of Iowa courts in coordinating online access to Iowa’s judicial information systems by courts, law enforcement agencies and also to citizens.

There were, and will be, other awards honoring Iowa’s judiciary, provided it is saved from meddling by federal and state executive branches and, yes, from citizens, too. ♦

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.

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