Iowa’s Chief Family, Diversity and Public Opinion Justice Justice
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen has a “boy’s robe” and a “girl’s robe” that she wears on the bench when she feels like it.
The “boy robe” belonged to her father, former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Jerry Larson, and includes his initials. He served from 1978 to 2008 and is the senior judge in Iowa history. She inherited it when he died in 2018 and wore it when she was installed as a Supreme Court justice later that year.
The “girl’s robe” also has memories, as Larson bought it for his daughter when she became a judge in 2007. “He said, ‘Let me buy you your first robe.’ So I have this one that has my initials in it,” Christensen said.
Speaking on a Zoom call hosted by Julie Gammack for paid subscribers to her blog on Aug. 22, she said, “Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck.” A former Des Moines Register columnist, Gammack has energized the Iowa writing community since returning to the state. She organized them Retreat for Okoboji writers, which has attracted top journalists and fellow writers from across the state. And she recently launched the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative, a growing coalition of respected Iowa writers, on the Substack blog site. Iowa Capital Dispatch has partnered with the group and has been publishing columns by members for the past two weeks.
But back to the boss. Gammack jumped into the robe story with the question we all wanted to ask: “Wait, wait, wait – sorry – what is a girls robe?”
“Oh, girls’ robes are different than boys’ robes,” Christensen replied.
Unlike the bulky, “boxy” boys’ robes, they are tailored for a woman, with some design details such as a small cuff at 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 nerd.”
Judge Larson died just months before his daughter was appointed to the Supreme Court. “But probably because it was so fresh on the heels of his death, wearing his robes that day was, I knew in my own way, the closest I could get if he were in the courtroom with me at that moment. And so it was a pretty cool feeling,” she said.
Christensen received another reminder from her father that day through former Justice Linda Neuman, the first woman to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court. Christensen said she often has to correct the assumption that she is the first woman on the pitch. That was Neuman, who was appointed in 1986 and served until 2003.
Nor was Christensen the first woman to serve as Chief Justice. That was Marsha Ternus, appointed in 1993. She served as chief justice from 2006 until her early removal from the court by conservative voters in 2010. Ternus was among a trio of judges who were booted for subscribing to the pioneering opinion that legalized Iowa same-sex marriage.
Christensen notes that there was an eight-year drought with no women on the state Supreme Court, so it’s an understandable error.
And frankly, it was also a mistake for Iowa’s governors to wait so long not to appoint another woman. (None of what Christensen said, I believe.) But it makes a difference, as Larson wrote to Neuman when she retired from court. Neuman gave this letter to Christensen on the day she was sworn in, saying it applied to her as well.
I did not see the letter, although I filed an application with the Judiciary. But Christensen described it to the group.
When Neuman handed her the card before the swearing-in, she told Christensen to read the letter later. “This will make you cry,” Neuman told her.
“So he wrote her a letter about her retirement and told her what it’s like to have a woman in the bank. And until she got there, they didn’t necessarily think it was that incredibly important (having a woman on the bench) until she got there,” Christensen said.
“He said she immediately cleaned up her act just by being there,” 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 in this part. She also mentioned an ability to solve problems without activating all the egos in a room full of people used to being “alpha dogs”.
So Christensen has her father’s robe and this “really cool letter that uses my father’s words to talk about the importance of having a diverse bank and … our bank should reflect our condition.”
The Iowa Supreme Court is perhaps as diverse as ever, with two women (Judge Dana Oxley was appointed in 2020) and one non-white member. Judge Christopher McDonald, whose mother was Vietnamese, was the first black woman to serve on the Iowa High Court. There is still a long way to go before it can be considered representative of the state.
Protection of the reputation of the court and its budget
The Iowa Supreme Court is in a precarious position right now. All of the justices, including Christensen, were appointed by Republican governors, with Justice Brent Appel retiring this summer. The Iowa court followed the US Supreme Court’s polarizing decision this spring by declaring that abortion is not a right under the Iowa Constitution.
Christensen declined to discuss the verdict on appeal. She said her written opinion on the case should be her final say on the matter. No one asked what robe she was wearing, figuratively speaking, as she decided to go along with the majority opinion.
However, she did address the tools she uses to try to influence public opinion about the court and, by extension, the legislature about the court.
Your most effective tool is neither a boy’s nor a girl’s robe. That’s what she’s like when she’s not wearing black.
“I’m approachable. I have real life experiences. I used to be a secretary, I’m a mother, I’m a grandmother, a disabled child, I have a husband who owns a business. I mean I was born and raised in Iowa. So I use those things, I think, to my advantage instead of trying to make it seem like I’m someone I’m not,” she said.
She’ll need every ounce of Iowa charm she can muster as the GOP-controlled Legislature continues on its mission to downsize government at a time when the courts are already underfunded. Lawmakers decided this year to end the requirement that the governor must pass the courts’ budget untouched, allowing the governor to take the first hit from now on.
Christensen points out that uncompetitive pay for judges and support staff means it is unable to retain qualified staff. Without staff, the judiciary 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 in prison.
“…It’s really hard to articulate the emotional trauma that people experience from the court system in a bad situation – 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’ll ever be able to quantify the damage it can do to people emotionally,” she said.
The current court could be less of a target for conservatives than it was before the abortion ruling two months ago. But many lawmakers still think they should have the final say on the law. Some GOP lawmakers want the court to reconsider its position on same-sex marriage. And we’ve seen vividly how willing they are to use the budget as a bludgeon.
Christensen says judges don’t forget attitudes and what is said and written about them. If they came into their households in the form of “hard times,” she says, they would have to interpret that as the state’s opinion. “And that’s a pretty hard pill sometimes,” she said.
“And yet we move forward, and whatever I do, we are without fear or favor from anyone. … I must do what I think is right, as an attorney and as a person.”