Recollection of Two Iowa Judicial Titans

by Randall D. Armentrout | March 1, 2016

By Randall D. Armentrout

Former Iowa Supreme Court Justice James Carter passed away on February 27, 2016.  His memorial service is March 3 in Cedar Rapids.  The next day, on March 4, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is holding a memorial session in Des Moines for Judge George Fagg, who passed away last year.   I had the honor of clerking for both Judges and am just now realizing the similarities in their remarkable careers (other than the ability to hire outstanding law clerks).

Both started their judicial careers on the Iowa District Court: Judge Fagg appointed in 1972 (District 2B—Marshall County); Justice Carter appointed in 1973 (District 6; Linn County).  In 1976, Governor Ray appointed Justice Carter to the newly-created Iowa Court of Appeals.  In 1982 both Judges received appointments to different appellate courts: Judge Fagg to the Eighth Circuit US Court of Appeals; and Justice Carter to the Iowa Supreme Court.  Both served 24 years on each respective court.

Both Judges were dedicated to reaching the fair and just result in every case and were acutely aware of how each individual decision they issued would affect the developing federal and state law.  In my observation, both were hard-working, but in different ways.  Justice Carter pondered and stewed over difficult legal issues while not putting pen to paper for many days.  He would then suddenly pick up his dictation machine and dictate long opinions, citing prior case precedent from memory (although he had me locate pinpoint page cites).  Oftentimes, the final published opinion was substantially the same as his dictated draft.  Respected by his peers as the harbinger of important changes to the law, Justice Carter issued many dissenting opinions that later found a majority of votes.

Judge Fagg, in contrast, preferred to work through multiple drafts of opinions.  As his lawyer (as he referred to his clerks), it was my job to draft an initial panel opinion and put it on a cart with every federal reporter cited in the opinion (I clerked for Judge Fagg from 1992-94 and we used the real books).  I wheeled the cart with the draft opinion and all the books into Judge Fagg’s office.  Normally, the cart was back in my office first thing the next morning (Judge Fagg routinely arrived at the office between 4-5 a.m.) with his suggested revisions to the draft.  On complex opinions, we would sometimes go through more than 10 drafts before circulating a proposed opinion to the other judges on the panel.  Judge Fagg’s numerous decisions were and are widely regarded as among the most well written and concise opinions from the Court.

Both Judges left an indelible mark on my legal career.  Unfortunately, it is too late now to thank them personally for making me a better legal writer, inspiring me to develop the law in a positive direction, and striving for justice in the individual case.  I will, however, thank them by trying to live up to the high standards they set for all lawyers.



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The Iowa Supreme Court has 30 cases left to decide in the two months that remain in the Court’s 2023-24 term.

The case that has been on the undecided list the longest – State v. Bauler, which raised a question of whether a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated in a traffic stop – was argued N …



On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog is devoted to appellate litigation with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


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