Former Chief Justice Calls For Diversity On Iowa Supreme Court

Jul 9, 2018

A former justice is warning a lack of diversity on Iowa’s Supreme Court could undermine its legitimacy. With an upcoming vacancy on the bench, state officials could have a chance to consider the issue. The judicial nominating commission began interviewing applicants Monday.

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager is retiring in September, opening up one of the seven seats on the state's highest court. For some court watchers, this could be an opportunity to change the face of the bench. Currently all seven of the state's justices are white men. 

The state's only female chief justice Marsha Ternus, who held the position from 2006 to 2010, believes diversity is integral to the court's collective decision-making process.

"Absolutely there is value to having diversity on the court," Ternus said. "The whole idea of having appeals heard by a group of individuals is that you have seven individuals bringing diverse perspectives and knowledge to bear on an issue."

Iowa has had two female Supreme Court justices -- Ternus and Justice Linda Neuman -- and no black justices. Still, diversity doesn't end with demographics like gender or ethnicity, Ternus said, but should extend to education and upbringing as well.

“If the seven people who are engaged in that effort have similar backgrounds and life experiences and education and skillsets and priorities, whatever you want to look at, then that collective decision-making is not going to be as robust,” Ternus said.

"The whole idea of having appeals heard by a group of individuals is that you have seven individuals bringing diverse perspectives and knowledge to bear on an issue." - Former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus

Gov. Kim Reynolds will have the final say on naming a nominee to replace Justice Zager, but the state's judicial nominating committee is in charge of narrowing the field. The JNC is in the process of vetting and interviewing the applicants, and will ultimately send three names to governor.

First and foremost, Ternus said she hopes the commissioners and the governor will choose applicants who are capable, intelligent, open-minded and un-biased. But she wants to see nominees who more closely reflect Iowa's changing demographics. If citizens can't see themselves reflected on the bench, Ternus said, they're less likely to trust the court.

“The people are more inclined to give less credibility to the decision because they don’t feel that their perspective and their life experience is reflected in that decision-making process,” Ternus said.