Judge, two attorneys are finalists for Iowa Supreme Court

Well-known lawyer fielded questions about Little League from nominating commission

The Iowa Supreme Court meets in the Iowa Judicial Branch Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

The State Judicial Nominating Commission on Thursday narrowed the pool of Iowa Supreme Court Justice applicants down to three and now it’s up to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to make the final decision on who will take a seat on the state’s highest court.

Following a day of interviewing 12 applicants, the commission selected Joel Barrows of Bettendorf, Matt McDermott of Des Moines and Dana Oxley of Cedar Rapids as its nominees to fill the vacancy left behind by former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, after his unexpected death in November. This will be Reynolds’ third Supreme Court pick and one that comes under scrutiny after a new law passed in 2019 giving her more control over the nominating commission.

Well-known attorney fields questions about Little League

Inside the Judicial Branch Building, applicants filed in one-by-one to give their pitches to the 17-person commission as the seven empty Supreme Court seats loomed over them.

The majority of the interview questions related to their unique legal backgrounds and how their experiences would come into play on the Iowa Supreme Court.

Leon Spies asked Oxley what she learned during her time working as a career clerk under David Hansen, the former judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

“If someone had an opposing view, then he would really dig into his own view to make sure that he was right about it,” Oxley said. “He wasn’t so tied to his own view that he would disregard someone else’s view just because it was different from him.”

Barrows was asked by Jeff Goodman if there was an Iowa Supreme Court Case where he felt the opinion should have been different or enhanced.

Barrows said there have been instances where district courts have been frustrated by Supreme Court opinions, pointing to a recent restitution decision as an example.

“I understand the court was just interpreting what the statute says and the statute was a little bit problematic in that area, but it really gave us no guidance and it has been extremely difficult to implement that decision for the district courts across the state.”

There was a warm, notable shift however for McDermott, where many of the commissioners who asked him questions acknowledged they already knew him. Spies, the first to ask a question, acknowledged that he knew McDermott so well that he said he should recuse himself. 

The familiar acknowledgments continued around the commission with Kathleen Law saying she knew McDermott well and chose to ask him about his experience volunteering as a Little League Coach when he was 20. Commission member Patricia Roberts also acknowledged she knew McDermott through their shared Little League experience.

McDermott responded by saying he learned negotiating skills at a young age.

“I had to deal with angry parents who were upset with umpires,” McDermott said. “I had to reschedule games if there was bad weather.”

Other questions for McDermott involved his volunteer work and what hole he would fill in the Iowa Supreme Court, where he said his rural background, charitable work and criminal defense background would help diversify the Supreme Court.

Iowans can watch videos of the interviews on the Iowa Courts’ Youtube channel.

More about the nominees

Barrows is the only judge in the group of nominees.

McDermott works as an attorney in private practice, but his resume includes an extensive list of leadership and volunteer work.

Oxley also works as a private attorney with a primary focus on civil appellate work.

The 17-member commission is composed of eight members elected by licensed lawyers and nine members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Iowa Senate.

Reynolds has 30 days to appoint a new justice.

Joel Barrows

Age: 59

Home: Bettendorf

Occupation: Iowa District Court Judge for the Seventh Judicial District since 2012

Law degree: Drake University, 1989

Matthew McDermott

Age: 42

Home: West Des Moines

Occupation: Attorney at Belin McCormick, P.C. in Des Moines since 2003

Law degree: University of California, Berkeley, 2003

Dana Oxley

Age: 52

Home: Swisher

Occupation: Attorney at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, PLC in Cedar Rapids since 2011

Law degree: University of Iowa, 1998

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.