King v. State: What sources are relevant to interpreting the Constitution?

by Ryan Koopmans | May 1, 2012

By Ryan Koopmans

Disagreement among the justices of the Iowa Supreme Court is rare. Since Justices Waterman, Mansfield, and Zager started signing onto opinions in April of last year, the Court has decided 113 cases; the decision was unanimous in all but 11; and the Court split 4-3 only six times. That’s remarkable unanimity, which makes the Court’s decision in King v. State all the more interesting. The case produced five separate opinions (which may be a record). And four of those opinions, written by Chief Justice Cady and Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Appel, include interesting discussions (and even direct back-and-forth) on the issue of proper constitutional interpretation. Those discussions are relevant to almost any constitutional case and are thus worth summarizing.

The main issue, as presented by the plaintiffs’ petition, was whether article IX, division 2, section 3 of the Iowa Constitution contains a right to a minimally sufficient education. In analyzing the question, Justice Mansfield considered three sources, starting with the text of section 3 and the surrounding provisions. He then moved to the Court’s relevant precedents, most of which were decided shortly after the ratification of the Iowa Constitution. And finally, he considered the debates of the constitutional convention. These three sources led Justice Mansfield, who was joined by Chief Justice Cady and Justices Waterman and Zager, to concluded that article IX, division 2, section 3 does not contain a right to a minimally sufficient education: (1) the text of section 3 and the surrounding provisions suggest that section 3 merely allows the legislature to fund schools, it doesn’t require the legislature to do so; (2) the Iowa Supreme Court held shortly after the 1857 convention that “no aspect of the Iowa Constitution, including the education clause authorized the legislature to provide for public schools (as opposed to merely funding them)”; and (3) one delegate to the 1857 convention proposed an amendment to section 3 that would have required the State to provide education “without charge,” but after another delegate argued that the local districts should “regulate this matter themselves” the convention rejected the amendment by a vote of 25 to 8.

In contrast to Justice Mansfield, who started his analysis with the text of the constitutional provision, Justice Appel began with a detailed, 22-page analysis of the “historical roles of national and state government in educating children” and the “relationship of education to democratic government, personal liberty, and human dignity.” He quoted some of our nation’s founders–Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Rush–as well as several nineteenth century Iowa governors. He noted, for example, that Governor James Grimes “emphasized education” in his 1856 inaugural address, the year before the constitutional convention. Justice Appel also relied on statements made during the constitutional convention, as well as several facts that post-date the ratification of Iowa’s Constitution. He found it significant to the constitutional question that Iowa held a statewide education summit in 1954 at President Eisenhower’s request, that Governor Ray served as the chairman of the Education Commission of the States from 1981 to 1982, that Governor Branstad has recently proposed legislative changes to Iowa’s education system, and that the United States ratified the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that education is a “human right.”

Justice Appel’s reliance on such a wide array of sources drew this response from Justice Mansfield:

We do not think a resolution of this case requires us to review the history of education generally or what past Iowa governors have said on the subject. We are judges, not historians. For judges, some history, such as our own precedent, is highly relevant. But there are risks when we draw on political history as source material for judicial decisionmaking. One risk is that we may unwittingly diminish the importance of more relevant historical events, such as the ratification debates on the Iowa Constitution, by submerging them in other political history that has only background importance. Another risk is that political trends might then be used to justify the outcome in a particular case. It is not surprising to us that Iowa’s governors have believed education to be a critical responsibility of government. But demonstrating that education has been a vital concern of the political branches of government does not answer the present question whether this particular case ought to proceed through the judicial branch.

Justice Waterman also criticized Justice Appel’s “wide-ranging survey of authorities,” noting specifically that he “fail[s] to see how a 1948 UN Declaration helps our court ascertain the intent of the framers of the Iowa Constitution ratified ninety years earlier.” That comment, in turn, drew a response from Justice Appel. He noted that several Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have relied on foreign law in their decisions, that many of our nation’s founders were influenced by a broad array of foreign sources, and that “the University of Iowa College of Law has a program in international and comparative law” that “‘provides an essential theoretical foundation for all lawyers by affording unique insight into the nature of law and legal process.’”

For his part, Chief Justice Cady joined Justice Mansfield’s opinion in full, but he also wrote that Justice Appel had “captured the rich history of [education] in Iowa and has provided insight into its constitutional stature.” That the Chief Justice would be more willing to consider modern-day events is consistent with his theory that Iowa’s Constitution is a “living document” that changes “with the increasing knowledge and understanding of the world.” Nonetheless Chief Justice Cady concluded that the allegations of this case, even if true, did not state a claim under the right to education—assuming there is one. And so he was “content to wait for a different case” in which to explore Justice Appel’s historical account.




February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.


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