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September 20, 2012

Iowa Supreme Court reaches out

Tour an effort to help public understand how the state’s courts work

OTTUMWA — The opening ritual was familiar as the Iowa Supreme Court came into session Wednesday evening. The setting was not.

Wednesday’s session was at St. John Auditorium at Indian Hills Community College, part of an ongoing effort to bring proceedings to areas outside the court building in Des Moines. It began in 2011, the year after voters rejected retention for three justices.

The vote was largely tied to a single opinion: Varnum v. Brien. The ruling held that the law banning gay marriage in Iowa was contrary to the Iowa Constitution, thus invalid. It paved the way for same-sex marriage to be legalized in the state.

The opinion was written by Mark Cady for a unanimous court. He wasn’t up for retention in the next vote but, in no small irony, the author of the most controversial opinion in recent court history became chief justice as a result of the retention vote.

 

A turning point

Cady admitted during an interview earlier in the day that the results rattled the state’s legal community. Justices and their staffs are focused, he said. That can lead to a gap between how the court sees its relationship with the public and how the public sees it. Getting out of Des Moines is an attempt to get both parties back on the same page, something Cady believes is of “critical importance.”

“We may have stumbled onto it through the retention process, but I think we may have discovered something that we should have been doing for a long time,” he said.

Local courts have become involved in outreach as well. One of the more notable efforts began in Ottumwa, with the district court’s judges composing short essays on the legal system and intricacies under the title “Court Calls” for publication in the Ottumwa Courier. The columns are part of what led Cady to call the district one of the state’s leaders in public outreach.

The big question, of course, is whether the outreach is working. Cady thinks it is.

“We have met thousands of Iowans. We have talked at 40 or more high schools,” he said. “I can’t help but sense we’re making an impact.”

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