Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa and is now sitting on the Iowa Supreme Court bench. He graduated from Drake Law School and is now married with three kids. In 1999, he was appointed to the District Court bench and was there for 11 years. In 2011, he was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court by Governor Branstad and his term goes until 2020. He is very proud of Iowa’s court history and shared some historic Civil Rights cases with us that took place in Iowa courts.
The first was a case from 1834. Ralph was slave in Missouri, which was a slave state and his owner agreed he could move to IA and buy his freedom. He worked in lead mines in Dubuque and fell behind on payments so his owner came back to get him. In 1839, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the owner couldn’t bring Ralph back to Missouri because Iowa was a free territory. A few years later, the US Supreme Court ruled other way in the Dredd Scott case which shows that Iowa was ahead of the time.
The second case Justice Zager shared was from 1868, Clark v Board of Directors. A 12 yr old black girl was refused admission in a public school by the school board. The Iowa Supreme Court stated: “the law makes no distinction for the right of children to attend the common schools” (IA Constitution) and ruled she could attend the school. Similar to above, the US Supreme Court went other direction in Plessy v Ferguson (separate but equal). That decision stood until Brown v Board in 1954 (separate is not equal).
The third and final historic case he talked about was Coger v NW Union, in 1873. A black teacher wanted to take boat across river couldn’t buy a ticket with meals. Her meal ticket said “colored girl” so had someone else buy her a ticket and she showed up to dinner. She was asked to leave and refused until she was forcibly removed. The Iowa Supreme Court- ruled that Coger, the plaintiff, was entitiled to same rights and privileges as whites on the boat. They quoted the Iowa Constitution and the Declaration of Independence by saying: “all men are by nature free and equal”. This same type of case and treatment was not outlawed in US Supreme Court until 1964 with the Civil Rights Act.
When asked about the decision making process of the Supreme Court, he said everything that is appealed in district court goes to Supreme Court. They then decide what cases to take another look at by using a screening panel every month (where they look at 15-20 cases) to decide what cases to keep. If they don’t want it, the case goes to court of appeals. On average, they hear 110 cases each year (compared to 1000 for court of appeals). 7 members make up Iowa Supreme Court and each case is randomly assigned to a justice to work up. All of them read and prepare for every case and they conference after oral argument. If you’re not in majority but assigned the case, someone else will right it. They circulate a draft opinion to other members and then they vote. He noted that there are always multiple points flowing around the conference table when discussing a case and everyone gets a chance to speak. The most important thing, Zager said is to: “leave your ego at the door and have a thick skin”.
He noted that the most difficult cases they argue about are progression of juvenile sentencing. He also mentioned a 2004 HIV case where he dissented (did not agree with the majority). Zager’s least favorite thing is probably disciplining fellow attorneys. He noted: “most of the people who get disciplined really deserve it”. Some examples include: stealing $ from client, playing around with clients $, and ignoring the rules; common sense things that they should know better about.
When asked about expanded news media coverage, he said that Iowa is on the leading edge. Everything is open. There are rules but there is still full access and they try to keep up with modern technology. There is zero problems with transparency, in fact, the Supreme Court tries to make it as transparent as they can. He said: “what’s wrong with everybody seeing whats going on?”
One of the most important things I learned from Justice Zager is strength. He said: “you have to stand up for yourself and what you believe in” because “someone’s life in the balance and you want to get it right”. I liked how he noted that they are not bound by what the US Supreme Court says rather that: “we’re always accountable to the public”. He reiterated how he is most proud of how Iowa was ahead of its time in terms of Civil Rights and I appreciated when he quoted my favorite president when he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln).