Iowa Supreme Court

Coordinates: 41°35′18″N 93°36′04″W / 41.588273°N 93.601193°W / 41.588273; -93.601193
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Iowa Supreme Court
Iowa Judicial Branch Building
LocationDes Moines, Iowa
Composition methodMissouri Plan
Authorized byIowa Constitution
Appeals toSupreme Court of the United States
Judge term length8 years
Number of positions7
WebsiteOfficial website
Chief Justice
CurrentlySusan Christensen
SinceFebruary 24, 2020

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.[1]


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.[2]

  • 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.[3][4] 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 Joined Term ends Mandatory retirement Appointed by Law school
Susan Christensen, Chief Justice (1962-04-27) April 27, 1962 (age 61) September 21, 2018 (as Associate Justice)
February 24, 2020 (as Chief Justice)
2028 April 27, 2034 Kim Reynolds (R) Creighton
Edward Mansfield (1957-01-12) January 12, 1957 (age 66) February 23, 2011 2028 January 12, 2029 Terry Branstad (R) Yale
Thomas D. Waterman 1959 (age 63–64) February 23, 2011 2028 2031 Terry Branstad (R) Iowa
Christopher McDonald (1974-09-17) September 17, 1974 (age 49) February 20, 2019 2028 September 17, 2046 Kim Reynolds (R) Iowa
Dana Oxley (1967-12-27) December 27, 1967 (age 55) January 29, 2020 2030 December 27, 2039 Kim Reynolds (R) Iowa
Matthew McDermott (1977-11-22) November 22, 1977 (age 45) April 3, 2020 2030 November 22, 2049 Kim Reynolds (R) UC Berkeley
David N. May (1971-05-23) May 23, 1971 (age 52) July 27, 2022 2024 May 23, 2043 Kim Reynolds (R) Drake

Notable decisions[edit]

In re Ralph, a colored man[edit]

In re Ralph, a colored man,[5] July 4, 1839 was the first reported decision in the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa, a federal court with jurisdiction similar to what would eventually be the Iowa Supreme Court when Iowa achieved statehood. 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”.[6]

Clark v. The Board of Directors[edit]

In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court decided Clark v. Board of School Directors,[7] 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.[8]

Arabella Mansfield[edit]

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.[9]

Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co.[edit]

The Court heard Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co.[10] in 1873, ruling against racial discrimination in public accommodations 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same decision.[9]

Varnum v. Brien[edit]

On April 3, 2009, in Varnum v. Brien,[11] 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.[12] At the next judicial retention election in 2010, voters removed all three justices facing a retention vote.[13] It was the first time any Iowa Supreme Court justice had been removed by voters.[13] Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, Justice Michael Streit, and Justice David L. Baker each received support from 45% or less of voters.[13]

Nelson v. Knight[edit]

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.[14][15]

Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds (2018)[edit]

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.[16]

Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds (2022)[edit]

In June 2022, the Court, in a 5–2 vote, found that the Iowa Constitution did not protect a right to an abortion, overruling its 2018 decision. The Court upheld a law establishing a 24-hour waiting period.[17][18][19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Iowa Supreme Court: History Archived 2010-05-28 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ National Center for State Courts. Iowa Judicial Branch. Archived 2009-06-17 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ 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]
  4. ^ Sulzberger, A. G. (November 3, 2010). "Ouster of Iowa Judges Sends Signal to Bench". The New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2021.
  5. ^ In re Ralph, 1 Morris 1 (1839)
  6. ^ In re Ralph, 1 Morris 1, 7 (1839)
  7. ^ 24 Iowa 266 (1868)
  8. ^ Longden, Tom. "Alexander G. Clark". Data Central. Des Moines Register. Archived from the original on February 3, 2015. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
  9. ^ a b "Civil Rights". Iowa Judicial Branch. Archived from the original on January 13, 2020. Retrieved February 28, 2020.
  10. ^ 37 Iowa 145 (1873)
  11. ^ 763 N.W.2d 862 (Iowa 2009);WL 874044 (Iowa 2009)
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ a b c A.G. Sulzberger (3 November 2010). "Ouster of Iowa Judges Sends Signal to Bench". The New York Times. p. A1. Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  14. ^ Nelson v. Knight, No. 11-1857 (Iowa Dec. 21, 2012).
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "Iowa Supreme Court rules abortion is not protected by state constitution". CBS News. June 17, 2022. Retrieved June 18, 2022.
  18. ^ Pitt, David (June 17, 2022). "Iowa Supreme Court: Abortion not fundamental right in state". Associated Press. Retrieved June 18, 2022.
  19. ^ Akin, Katie; Morris, Willian (June 17, 2022). "Iowa Supreme Court says fundamental right to abortion not guaranteed under state constitution". The Des Moines Register. Retrieved June 18, 2022.

External links[edit]

41°35′18″N 93°36′04″W / 41.588273°N 93.601193°W / 41.588273; -93.601193