Iowa’s chief justice on family, diversity, and the price of public opinion

August 29, 2022 8:00 am

Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen gives the Condition of the Judiciary address to a joint session of Iowa’s Legislature at the Capitol in Des Moines on Jan. 12, 2022. (Pool photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register)

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen has a “boy robe” and a “girl robe,” which she wears on the bench as the mood strikes her.

The “boy robe” belonged to her father, former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Jerry Larson, and it has his initials inside. He served from 1978 to 2008, and is the longest-serving judge in Iowa history. She inherited it when he passed away in 2018, and she wore it when she was invested as a Supreme Court judge later that year.

The “girl robe” also has memories, because Larson bought it for his daughter when she became a judge in 2007. “He said, ‘Let me buy you your first robe.’ So I’ve got that one that has my initials inside,” Christensen said.

She spoke Aug. 22 on a Zoom call organized by Julie Gammack for paid subscribers of her blog, “Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck.” Gammack, a former Des Moines Register columnist, has been energizing the Iowa writers’ community since she returned to the state. She organized the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat, which has drawn top journalists and other scribblers from all over the state. And she recently launched the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, a growing association of distinguished Iowa writers, on the blog site Substack. Iowa Capital Dispatch has partnered with the group and has been publishing members’ columns for the past two weeks.

But back to the chief. Gammack jumped into the robe story with the question we all wanted to ask: “Wait, wait, wait – excuse me – what is a girl robe?”

“Oh, girl robes are different than boy robes,” Christensen responded.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen delivers the State of the Judiciary address at the Iowa Capitol on Jan. 13, 2021. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

Unlike the bulky, “boxy” boy robes, they’re tailored for a woman, with some design details like a little cuff on the sleeve with a fabric-covered button.  “And it’s just a little more feminine and fits us a little better than a box,” she said. “But I like my dad’s better — it’s cooler, it’s probably cheaper. That’s probably why I like it, knowing Dad, he was a tightwad.”

Justice Larson died just a few months before his daughter’s appointment to the Supreme Court. “But probably because it was so fresh on the heels of his death, wearing his robe that day was, I knew in my own way, the closest I’d get for him to be in the courtroom with me at that moment. And so it was a pretty cool feeling,” she said.

Christensen received another memory from her father that day, by way of former Justice Linda Neuman, the first woman to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court. Christensen said she often has to correct people’s assumption that she was the first woman on the court. That was Neuman, who was appointed in 1986 and served until 2003.

Christensen also wasn’t the first woman to serve as chief justice. That was Marsha Ternus, appointed in 1993. She served as chief justice from 2006 until her untimely removal from the court by conservative voters in 2010. Ternus was one of a trio of justices booted for joining the landmark opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Christensen notes there was an eight-year drought with no women on the state’s high court, so it’s an understandable mistake.

Justice Linda Neuman was the first woman to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Judicial Branch)

And, frankly, it was also a mistake for Iowa’s governors to go so long without appointing another woman. (My opinion, not something Christensen said.) But it makes a difference, as Larson wrote to Neuman when she retired from the court. Neuman gave that letter to Christensen on the day she was sworn in, saying it also applies to her.

I haven’t seen the letter, although I put in a request with the Judicial Branch. But Christensen described it to the group.

When Neuman gave her the card before the swearing-in ceremony, she told Christensen to read the letter later. “It’ll make you cry,” Neuman told her.

“So he wrote her a letter on her retirement, telling her what it was like to have a woman on the bench. And how until she got there, they didn’t think it was necessarily all that incredibly important (to have a woman on the bench), until she got there,” Christensen said.

“He said she immediately, just by her presence, cleaned up their act,” Christensen said. But it went beyond the civilizing effect of a woman in a room with a bunch of men sitting around a table.

Christensen mentioned emotional intelligence, but she didn’t want to be quoted on that part. She also mentioned an ability to solve problems without activating all the egos in a room full of people who are used to being “alpha dog.”

So Christensen has her father’s robe and this “really cool letter, with the words of my dad talking about the importance of having a diverse bench and … our bench should reflect our state.”

Well said.

The Iowa Supreme Court is perhaps the most diverse it has ever been, with two women (Justice Dana Oxley was appointed in 202o), and one non-white member. Justice Christopher McDonald, whose mother was Vietnamese, was the first person of color to serve on Iowa’s high court. It still has a way to go before it can be considered representative of the state.

Protecting the court’s reputation and its budget

The Iowa Supreme Court is in a delicate position right now. All of the justices, including Christensen, were appointed by Republican governors, with the retirement this summer of Justice Brent Appel. The Iowa court followed the polarizing decision of the U.S. Supreme Court this spring by declaring there is no right to abortion in the Iowa Constitution.

Christensen wouldn’t talk about the ruling on the call. She said her written opinion on the case should be her last word on the subject. Nobody asked which robe she was wearing, metaphorically speaking, when she decided to join the majority opinion on that one.

She did, however, address what tools she uses to try to influence public opinion of the court and by extension, the Legislature’s, about the court.

Her most effective tool isn’t a boy robe or a girl robe. It’s who she is when she’s not wearing black.

“I am approachable. I have real life experiences. I used to be a secretary, I’m a mom, I’m a grandmother, a handicapped child, I have a husband, who owns a business. I mean, I am born-and-raised Iowa. So I use those things, I think, to my advantage, instead of trying to make it seem like I’m something I’m not,” she said.

She’ll need every ounce of Iowa charm she can manage as the GOP-controlled Legislature continues its mission to downsize government at a time when courts are already underfunded. Lawmakers this year decided to end the requirement that the governor pass through the courts’ budget untouched, so from now on, the governor can take the first whack.

Christensen points out that not having competitive pay for judges and support staff means not being able to retain qualified people. Without staff, justice is delayed.

That may cost Iowans money, she said, but the cost is much higher when it comes to issues like domestic violence, child protection, medical malpractice – or innocent people sitting in jail.

“ … It’s really hard to articulate the emotional trauma people experience in a poor situation through the court system — poor because they couldn’t get in quick enough, or because the resources weren’t there to handle it in an efficient way. I don’t know if we can ever put down a value as to the damage it can cause emotionally to people,” she said.

The current court may be less of a target for conservatives than it was before the abortion ruling two months ago. But many lawmakers still think they should be the final word on the law. Some GOP lawmakers want the court to revisit its opinion on same-sex marriage. And we’ve seen in graphic detail how willing they are to use the budget as a cudgel.

Christensen says judges aren’t oblivious to the attitudes and what is said and written about them. When they come in the form of “tough times” in their budgets, she says, they have to interpret that as the opinion of the state. “And that’s kind of a tough pill to swallow sometimes,” she said.

“And yet, we go forth, and we, whatever action I take, is without fear or favor of anyone. … I have to do what I believe is right, as a lawyer and as a human being.”

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.