Go Ahead, Be Proud of Your Iowa Courts!

December 15, 2020

Historic Rulings Led the Nation against Slavery, Segregation, and Discrimination

We have a lot to brag about here in the Hawkeye state. Iowa is an agricultural powerhouse, home to several prestigious universities and Fortune 500 corporations, birthplace for many famous Americans, AND the only state in the union with navigable rivers defining its east-west borders! But just in case that’s not enough to impress your out-of-state friends who still consider Iowa “flyover country,” lay this one on them. Iowa courts are badass!

That’s right – starting with the Iowa Supreme Court’s very first case in 1839 – several blockbuster Iowa court rulings have blazed a brilliant trail of justice well ahead of the rest of the nation. Today we highlight three of these legal milestones from the first 100 years of Iowa’s courts:

1839: In the Matter of Ralph

Iowa was still a territory when it’s freshly-minted Supreme Court declared Ralph, a former enslaved person, a free man after his enslaver sent bounty hunters here to drag him back to Missouri. The court held that “no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery,” 24 years before Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation.

1868: Separate Is Not Equal

Alexander Clark challenged the Muscatine school board after his 12-year-old daughter was denied admission to the public high school because she was black. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Clark’s favor, calling segregated schools inherently unequal. It took the U.S. Supreme Court another 85 years to rule against segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education.

1873: Public Accommodations Are for Everyone

When 19-year-old Emma Coger tried to sit in the dining room of a steamboat to Keokuk, she was struck on the head and forcibly removed by the captain. The Iowa Supreme Court called the incident a “gross injustice,” and held that Coger, a seventh-grade school teacher, was entitled to the same rights as white passengers. The U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion … in 1964.

Iowa’s highest court also walked the walk in managing its own affairs when it admitted Arabella A. Mansfield to the state bar in 1869, the first woman in the nation allowed to practice law.

These landmark decisions also reflect well on our state Constitution and the principles of fairness and respect for human dignity that we believe all Iowans share. Next up from JNP, a spotlight on several precedent-setting cases from the court’s modern era.

The Justice Not Politics Team

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