Iowa Courts Reopen with “Serving Safely” Public Service Message for Citizen Jurors

February 22, 2021

Iowa courts are reassuring potential jurors that safety measures are in place for resumption of trials. Additional $9 million requested to help clear case backlog.

“Even in a global pandemic, the wheels of justice cannot stop turning.”

With that sentiment, former KCCI-TV anchor Kevin Cooney urges Iowans to answer the call if asked to serve on a jury in new video public service announcements released by the Iowa Judicial Branch with the resumption of jury trials on Feb. 1.

Iowa courts are reassuring potential jurors that safety measures are in place for resumption of trials. Additional $9 million requested to help clear case backlog.

“As stated in the PSA, ‘the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is the bedrock of Iowa’s judicial system and is essential to our democracy,’” Iowa Supreme Court Justice Matthew McDermott, co-chair of the Jumpstart Jury Trials Task Force, said. “The videos explain to potential jurors the important balance of ensuring the right to a fair trial and protecting the health and safety of all the participants in the trial.”

Trials were first put on hold in March 2020 during the onset of the pandemic, resumed in September only to be paused again in November as infections surged. The PSA directs viewers to a resource page and longer video that outlines the many measures taken by the court to keep jurors, defendants, and court officers safe.

Based on the reports we’re hearing, Iowans are stepping up to serve. Extensive safeguards are in place throughout the process from the time a summons is received through check-in, jury selection, and the trial. A potential juror can also request a one-year deferral based on concerns about COVID.

“To our knowledge there were no infections connected with the trials that took place last fall and we believe that is a testament to the safeguards we have in place,” Justice McDermott reported.

The restart is long overdue for too many Iowans and their families who have had their lives put on hold while waiting for the resumption of jury trials. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the old English saying goes, and this has been a particularly frustrating and dangerous experience for those incarcerated while waiting for their day in court. Several thousand inmates and hundreds of correctional officers have been infected with the coronavirus, 18 inmates have died.

Iowans are doing their job to get the courts moving again, so now the Governor and legislative leaders must do the same and approve the court’s budget request for an additional $9 million to cover COVID-19 expenditures and tackle the significant backlog in cases. It’s time to get the wheels of justice moving once again for all Iowans.

The Justice Not Politics Team

Special Interest Groups Promote Partisan Agendas In Battle to Politicize Courts

February 11, 2021

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Folk wisdom that has never been more true when tracking special interest groups who work to influence our courts. When you scan the titles, you’ll likely find them pretty tame, but once you crack the spine, you’ll discover a lot of content about politicizing our courts.

“Best sellers” on the national level include groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, the Judicial Fairness Initiative, and Demand Justice, or state-level groups like Ohioans for a Healthy Economy, For the Sake of the Kids, or North Carolina Families First. And who can forget that local “thriller” Iowa for Freedom, the “cover” used by Bob Vander Plaats and The Family Leader to funnel millions of dollars from outside far-right groups into campaigns to defeat the retention of several Iowa Supreme Court justices over the past decade.

The common denominator, regardless of what end of the political spectrum these groups represent, is the belief that we should choose and evaluate judges based on politics rather than merit and a fair-minded interpretation of the law. Many are also willing to collect and spend millions in dark money on attack ads and misinformation campaigns to achieve political and partisan outcomes. As a political operative from one group stated in a Kansas forum on judicial elections, “It’s a whole lot cheaper to buy a state supreme court justice than a state legislator, and you’re going to get a LOT more influence with a supreme court justice.”

From time to time in a new series we’ve titled Justice at Stake (a term we’ve borrowed from a now-inactive national fair courts group), we’ll examine these organizations and the intent behind the lofty-sounding titles and those who are bankrolling their efforts – especially at the state level.

And while you likely know at least a few of the stories, we hope to help distinguish the main characters — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ll guide you through the big plot points and help make sense of a burgeoning genre of big money funders, partisan players, and foot soldiers to the wealthy and powerful, alongside those trying to push back against this tide of partisan tricks: the intellectuals, the detectives, and the citizens brigade.

For those of you wondering where Justice Not Politics fits into this story, we’re happy to say that organizations like ours are working to protect courts from political influence. Generally state-based groups like JNP, Kansans for Fair Courts, Justice Not Politics Alaska and others understand and expect some decisions that our supporters might disagree with because that’s what happens when fair-minded judges follow the law. More important, we recognize that advocating for fair courts means that we can all count on impartial treatment in a courtroom no matter who is on the other side or which political party is in power.

Stay tuned. The first chapter is coming soon. We’ll introduce the partisan powerhouses … protagonists with a plan to politicize every courtroom in America.

The Justice Not Politics Team

Chief Justice Susan Christensen to Deliver Her First Condition of the Judiciary Message this Week

January 12, 2021

What Concerns Are You Hoping to Hear Addressed?

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Susan Christensen, recently reselected by her peers as Chief Justice, will deliver her first Condition of the Judiciary message to the Legislature on Wednesday, Jan. 13 at 10 a.m.

According to a news release from the Court, Christensen’s speech will be broadcast live on Iowa Public Television as well as streamed online from the Iowa PBS website, Facebook, and YouTube pages.

Every year we pay very close attention to this presentation by the Chief Justice, as well as the Governor’s Condition of the State speech a day earlier, for any proposals that might impact the integrity of fair and impartial courts in Iowa. We have two “asks” for you:

  1. Tell us in advance what concerns you hope Chief Justice Christensen will address in her first Condition of the Judiciary speech.
  2. Share your thoughts after you’ve had a chance to digest both “Condition Of” presentations by the Governor and the Chief Justice.

You can do so by replying directly to this email or posting to the Justice Not Politics Facebook and Twitter pages. We hope to highlight some of these responses in future articles.

Christensen Only the Third Woman to Serve on Iowa Supreme Court, Second as Chief Justice

Many Iowans are still getting to know Judge Christensen, the third woman to serve on the state’s highest court and the second to be selected by her peers as Chief Justice. At the time of her appointment by Gov. Kim Reynolds to Iowa’s highest court in 2018, Iowa was the only state in the country with an all-male Supreme Court. “To my soon new colleagues on the Iowa Supreme Court, I look forward to working with you — and dusting off the ladies’ room,” quipped Christensen in a Des Moines Register article announcing her appointment.

Christensen was re-selected Chief Justice last week by a majority vote of her peers after she was first elected to hold that position following the 2020 retirement of Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins.

Speaking of the challenges she faced during her first 10 months at the helm, Christensen said, “I have seen how the judges and employees of the judicial branch responded to the pandemic and derecho and I could not be more proud of their efforts. Everyone in the judicial branch faced both crises head on and responded quickly, doing whatever was needed to keep our courts open to the fullest extent, while keeping our people safe, and protecting our communities.”

Born and raised in Harlan, Iowa, Christensen worked her way up the ladder in the legal profession, first as a practicing lawyer for 16 years, a district associate judge, and a district court judge before joining the Supreme Court.

Judicial service also runs in the Chief’s family. Christensen’s brother, Jeff Larson, is the chief judge of Iowa’s fourth judicial district. Their father, Jerry Larson, was the longest serving Supreme Court Justice in Iowa history, serving from 1978-2008 (former Justice Larson passed away in 2018). You can read Christensen’s official biography here.

The Justice Not Politics Team

Iowa Courts Continue Role As Vanguard for Equal Rights, Fairness During Modern Era

December 28, 2020

After leading the nation with several blockbuster rulings on human and civil rights during its first 100 years in business, Iowa courts in the modern era would certainly have a tough act to follow. But the die was cast and – good news for us – our Iowa courts continue their role as vanguard for equal rights and fairness for ALL Iowans, not just those with money and influence.

More recent milestones include:

1962: Judges Selected On Merit
In the old days, district and appellate court judges in Iowa had to campaign for a seat on the bench. This meant money and politics could trump qualifications and experience. “Enough!” said the people of Iowa, passing a constitutional amendment in 1962 that established merit-based nominations and retention elections. Based on the judicial campaign horror stories we witness elsewhere in the country, Iowans got it right.

1986: First Woman Justice in High Court’s 150-Year History
There are many achievements next to Linda K. Neuman’s name – prominent lawyer, county magistrate, district court judge, law school instructor, leader of multiple professional and civic organizations – all crowned by her appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1986. The late Chief Justice Mark Cady would say of Neuman: “While no career is defined by a single contribution, a single achievement can be, at times, so transformative that history can never be told again without including the achievement. Justice Neuman made such a contribution by becoming the first woman to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court.”

2009: Marriage Equality for All Iowans
In Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. “We knew that our decision would be unpopular with many people, and we even knew in the back of our minds that we could lose our jobs because of our votes in that case,” said former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, “but we took an oath of office in which we promised to uphold the Iowa Constitution without fear, favor or hope of reward, and that is what we did.”

We believe this storied history of upholding the rights of average citizens continues to this day in Iowa’s courts because our judges are free to rule fairly and consistently based upon the law and constitution, not politics. And it will stay that way unless we give in to the extreme special interests and politicians who would turn back the clock to a time when they called the shots in our courts instead of you!

The Justice Not Politics Team

This really cool JNP travel mug could be yours!

Take Our Know Your Courts Quiz and
Show Off Your Iowa Smarts

The Justice Not Politics Know Your Courts quiz is the latest Facebook sensation! Okay, maybe that’s a little hyped, but it really is fun, easy and your only chance to win the highly coveted JNP travel mug. Participation is free, and everyone is entered for trying. Good luck!



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

How Well Do You Know Your Iowa Courts?

Take Our Quiz and You Could Snag Your Very Own Justice Not Politics Travel Mug!

You don’t have to be a law professor to take our JNP Know Your Courts quiz and win a chance to show off your support for fair and independent courts in Iowa. Start here.