The 2017-18 term marked the end of an era for the Iowa Supreme Court

by Rox Laird | September 19, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018-19 term that began Sept. 4 marks the first change in court personnel in nearly a decade, with the retirement of Justice Bruce Zager and the appointment of former District Judge Susan Christensen to take his place.

The Court’s 2017-18 term was the final chapter of the era that began after the removal by voters of three justices, the appointment of Zager, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman to replace them, and the elevation of Mark Cady to Chief Justice.

In the term that ended in June, the Court decided 102 cases, although three additional cases were resubmitted for consideration this term, and one case was dismissed.

The largest percentage of cases (44 percent) the Court heard were further review of Court of Appeals decisions, and 36 percent were direct appeals from the District Courts.

The Supreme Court reversed the trial courts in 45 percent of the cases heard on appeal, and affirmed in 37 percent, with 15 percent yielding in mixed results (i.e., partially affirmed, partially reversed).

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in 64 percent of the cases and affirmed the lower court in 25 percent of the cases. That reversal rate is not surprising, since the Supreme Court typically accepts appeals of only a small fraction of the 1,200 cases decided by the Court of Appeals each year, and the justices accept appeals on further review only in those cases where they believe reconsideration is warranted.

The justices individually wrote 155 opinions, which include majority opinions, dissents and special concurrences. Justice Brent Appel wrote the most opinion (30) followed by Justice David Wiggins and Justice Waterman (26 each). The total number of opinions was down 27 from the previous year. (These numbers were skewed in part by the absence of Justice Daryl Hecht, who did not participate in all cases in the last term when he was being treated for melanoma.)

Wiggins and Mansfield – who are often at opposite ends of the Court’s spectrum – were tied in the number of majority opinions at 18 each. Mansfield wrote 10 dissents, and Waterman and Appel each wrote nine. Cady wrote just two dissents, Zager one and Hecht none.

The Court was unanimous in 67 of the 102 of the cases decided, or about two-thirds of the time.

The Court was split 4-3 in 14 cases (or 4-2 in nine cases, when a seventh justice did not participate), where one vote dictated the outcome.

Looking at the cases decided by a non-unanimous vote, the seven-member Court followed its consistent pattern of splitting into two camps: Appel, Wiggins and Hecht typically were in one camp; Mansfield, Waterman and Zager were in another camp; and Chief Justice Cady typically cast the deciding vote.

In the non-unanimous cases, Appel and Hecht were the most likely to agree (in 93 percent of the cases), followed by Waterman and Mansfield (89 percent). Waterman and Wiggins were the least likely to agree, voting the same way in only 11 percent of the cases where the Court was not unanimous. The Chief Justice had the highest rate of agreement with each of his six colleagues on the Court.

The Court is back to full strength in the current term with the return of Justice Hecht, and with the addition of Justice Christensen, who joined the Court on Sept. 4. A formal investiture ceremony for Christensen is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., Sept. 21, in the Supreme Court courtroom.

Overall Opinion Authorship:





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