Chief Justice of Iowa on Family, Diversity, and the Price of Public Opinion

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen has a “boy’s robe” and a “girl’s robe,” which she wears on the bench whenever she feels like it.

The “boy’s robe” belonged to his father, former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Jerry Larson, and 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 wore it when she was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice that same year.

The “girl’s 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 have the one with my initials on it,” Christensen said.

She spoke on August 22 on a Zoom call hosted by Julie Gammack for paid subscribers of her blog, “Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck.” Gammack, a former columnist for the Des Moines Record, has been cheering up Iowa’s writing community since returning to the state. She organized the Okoboji Writers Retreat, which has attracted top journalists and other hacks from around the state. And recently launched the Iowa Writers Collaboration, a growing association of distinguished Iowa writers, on the Substack blog site. The Iowa Capital Dispatch has partnered with the group and has been publishing the members’ columns for the past two weeks.

But back to the boss. Gammack jumped into the smock story with the question we all wanted to ask: “Wait, wait, wait, excuse me, what’s a girl’s smock?”

“Oh, girl’s robes are different from boy’s,” Christensen replied.

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

Unlike bulky, “boxy” boy’s tunics, they’re tailored for a woman, with a few design details like a small sleeve cuff with a fabric-covered button. “And she’s a little more feminine and it fits us a little better than a box,” she said. “But I like my dad’s better, it’s fresher, probably cheaper. That’s probably why I like him, knowing dad, he was a tightwad.”

Justice Larson died only a few months before his daughter’s appointment to the Supreme Court. “But probably because I was so close to his death, wearing his robe that day was, I knew in my own way, the closest I would get to him being in the courtroom with me at the time. So it was a very good feeling,” he said.

Christensen received another memento of 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 people’s assumption that she was the first woman on the pitch That was Neuman, who was appointed in 1986 and served until 2003.

Christensen was also not the first woman to serve as Chief Justice. That was Marsha Ternus, appointed in 1993. She served as Chief Justice from 2006 until conservative voters prematurely removed her from the court in 2010. Ternus was one of a trio of justices ousted for joining the historic opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Christensen points out that there was an eight-year drought with no women on the state’s superior court, so it’s an understandable mistake.

Chief Justice of Iowa on Family, Diversity, and the Price of Public Opinion justice linda neuman iowa judicial branch
Justice Linda Neuman was the first woman to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Judiciary)

And frankly, it was also a mistake for Iowa 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 he retired from court. Neuman gave that letter to Christensen the day he was sworn in and said it applies to her as well.

I have not seen the letter, although I made a request to the Judiciary. But Christensen described it to the group.

When Neuman gave him the card before the swearing-in ceremony, he told Christensen to read the letter later. “It will make you cry,” Neuman told him.

“So he wrote her a letter about his 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 that incredibly important (to have a woman on the bench), until she got there,” Christensen said.

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

Christensen mentioned emotional intelligence, but did not want to be quoted in that part. She also mentioned the ability to solve problems without activating all the egos in a room full of people who are used to being “alpha dogs.”

So, Christensen has his father’s robe and this “really great letter, with my father’s words talking about the importance of having a diverse bank and…our bank 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 2020) and one non-white member. Judge Christopher McDonald, whose mother was Vietnamese, was the first person of color to serve on Iowa’s superior court. He still has a ways to go before he can be considered a state representative.

Protect the reputation of the court and its budget

The Iowa Supreme Court is in a tricky 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 polarizing decision of the US Supreme Court this spring by declaring that there is no right to abortion in the Iowa Constitution.

Christensen declined to discuss the failure of the call. She said that her written opinion of her case should be her last word on the matter. No one asked what robe she was wearing, metaphorically speaking, when she decided to join the majority opinion on that one.

He did, however, address what tools he uses to try to sway public opinion in the court, and by extension the Legislature, about the court.

Your most effective tool is not a boy’s smock or a girl’s smock. It’s who she is when she doesn’t wear black.

“I am accessible. I have real life experiences. I used to be a secretary, I’m a mom, I’m a grandmother, a disabled child, I have a husband, who runs 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 something that I’m not,” she said.

He’ll need every ounce of Iowa charm he can handle as the GOP-controlled Legislature continues its mission to downsize government at a time when the courts are no longer underfunded. This year, lawmakers decided to end the requirement that the governor pass the budget through the courts intact, so from now on, the governor can take the first hit.

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

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

“…It’s really difficult to articulate the emotional trauma that people in a disadvantaged situation experience through the court system: poor because they couldn’t get in there fast enough or because there weren’t the resources to handle it efficiently. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to put a value on the damage it can do to people emotionally,” he said.

The current court may be less objective to conservatives than it was before the abortion ruling two months ago. But many lawmakers still think they should have the last word on the law. Some Republican lawmakers want the court to review its opinion on same-sex marriage. And we have seen in graphic detail how willing they are to use the budget as a cudgel.

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

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