Sometimes we have the honor and the privilege of seeing the exact right person take a podium and say the exact right thing. Chief Justice Mark Cady is that person, and his remarks at the 2018 Condition of the Judiciary were just what needed to be said.
In his address, the Chief Justice explained the incredible return on investment the courts have provided. He touted the successes of risk assessment tools and diversionary programs that have saved lives and significant costs to the state regarding problems such as incarceration, addiction, and recidivism. Saving money and improving people’s lives is something everyone can support, yet these programs are in a limbo of underdevelopment because of the freeze the legislators have placed on the third branch.
Therein lies the rub.
Knowing this, the Chief Justice not only talked about the return on financial investment, he also spoke about the return on investing in Iowa’s legacy.
Accordingly, he pointed out that 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Clark v. Board of School Directors decision. That 1868 decision deemed the Muscatine School Board’s adoption of “separate-but-equal” policies that banned an African-American 12 year-old girl named Susan Clark from attending an all-white school to be inconsistent with equal rights as defined by the Iowa Constitution. The policy was struck down as unconstitutional, and similar policies had to be abolished. And the state of Iowa–along with our collective conscience as Iowans–was the better for it.
It took the United States Supreme Court 86 years to catch up to that reasoning when it decided Brown v Board of Education in 1954.
This is one of several examples of Iowa being on the right side of history thanks to its judiciary.
The Iowa Supreme Court’s original 1839 decision, In re Ralph, declared a black man a person and not chattel. The U.S. Supreme Court held otherwise 18 years later and the Constitutional crisis that spawned the Civil War had to settle the matter.
The 1873 decision in Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co. held that a black woman was entitled to the same rights and privileges of public accommodation 91 years before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Arabella A. Mansfield was the first woman in the nation admitted to practice law, and she did that here in Iowa in 1869.
We don’t need to reach back over a century to appreciate these moments. All of us can recognize the significance of the Varnum decision in 2009, which was again ahead of the curve.
Here is the difficult truth in all of these proud moments: it was not the Iowa electorate nor their elected officials who made this progress happen. It was the plaintiffs and applicants themselves who endured and had access to a District Court and Appellate Court system with the ability to disqualify such injustices.
The Clark family and all others turned to the courts because it was their only option. Frankly, the support of their neighbors and legislators was not significant enough for their rights to be recognized. It was the role of the judiciary that realized our better ways.
Today, all of us who know this judicial legacy proudly proclaim it and beam with pride at predecessors and contemporaries. Indeed, the judiciary has not just returned investments for our pocketbooks, they have returned investments on our collective soul.
But what have we the people done to be on the right side of history?
Chief Justice Cady, as one of many, has been bearing that cross for us, and we need to support them. This is a call on fellow Iowans and those with a seat under that golden dome to have the courage to alleviate the financial strains that have been starving our judiciary.
Every person in that chamber on that day not only gave the Chief Justice applause as he exited, he was the recipient of a raucous ovation. Hurrahs and cheers ushered him as he walked out of that hall.
Everyone reveled in our historic pedigree and thanked him and his colleagues for their part in it; however, clapping does not spare the legislature nor us citizens from fulfilling our role in this story. Staking claim to the legacy of our third branch should not be warranted without doing what we can to support it when we are called upon to do so.
The legislative and executive branches need to take action. The judiciary needs a 7.9% increase in funding to stay current on its bills and accessibility. “The money just isn’t there” is no longer acceptable.
We the people need to do it for their sake, as well as our own.