UPDATES & ANALYSIS

2.19

An Iowan on the Supreme Court? It’s happened before.

by Rox Laird | February 19, 2016

As Ryan noted here Monday, Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids has been mentioned as a potential nominee by President Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Or, if the appointment were to be made after the election, and a Republican wins, speculative short lists include the name of another Iowan on the Eighth Circuit, Judge Steven Colloton of Des Moines.

If either Iowan were to be put on the court, it would be a big deal for Iowa, of course. But it would not be a first. In fact, two Iowans served on the U.S. Supreme Court:

Samuel Freeman Miller of Keokuk was appointed to the court by President Lincoln in 1862, and Wiley B. Rutledge Jr., dean of the University of Iowa Law School, was appointed to the court in 1943 by President Franklin Roosevelt.

A tip of the hat to Mark Lambert of Polk City for bringing this history to our attention, and he added an interesting historic footnote: “One weird little tidbit I noticed when researching the Iowans who had been on the Supreme Court is that Rutledge and Freeman, although Iowans at the time of appointment, were both natives of Kentucky.”

Some other coincidences: Both men served on the court in wartime, and both appointments had geographic significance. Miller was the first court appointee from west of the Mississippi, and FDR reportedly wanted Rutledge on the court because the Midwesterner brought geographic diversity to the court.  (Rutledge also supported FDR’s court-packing plan.)

Of note, Miller was the author of the opinion in the so-called “Slaughterhouse Cases” (1873), in which the court addressed the meaning of the recently ratified Civil War Amendments. Constitutional law scholars have scathingly criticized Miller’s narrow reading of the Fourteenth Amendment, which they say misconstrued Congress’ intent to prevent the states from violating the constitutional rights of citizens, including newly freed slaves.

To read more about both Miller and Rutledge, see Tom Longden’s biographies written as part of his Famous Iowans series for the Register. Also, an excellent biography of Miller was published in 2003, “Justice of Shattered Dreams: Samuel Freeman Miller and the Supreme Court during the Civil War Era.”

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