Christopher McDonald talks about his approach to being an appellate judge in podcast interview

by Rox Laird | August 3, 2021

In a new “In the Balance” podcast interview, Iowa Supreme Court Justice Christopher McDonald talks about his career as a lawyer in private practice and as a trial and appellate judge, his approach to oral arguments, and what it means to be the first person of color appointed to the Supreme Court.

The podcast, one in a series of monthly reports on the Iowa courts produced by Iowa Judicial Branch Public Information Assistant Marissa Gaal, is the fourth interview with a member of the Court. Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Edward Mansfield and Matthew McDermott were previously interviewed.

McDonald said his experience as a district judge gave him a valuable perspective on how the judicial process affects real people.

“When you’re a district court judge, it’s a very human experience, and it takes the abstract legal principles and law and it applies them to concrete circumstances, and you see the people in front of you,” he said. “You sentence a criminal defendant. You rule in a custody case. You see the jury interact with each other. You see the witnesses live.”

He sees this as important context for an appellate judge. “I think that’s very important for an appellate court judge to understand that, although we’re dealing frequently with abstract legal principles, we’re really dealing with people who have real problems, and real issues, and issues that are significant that they think it’s worth coming to the Supreme Court of Iowa to get them resolved.”

McDonald said he sees the Supreme Court’s oral arguments as an opportunity for the justices to have a dialogue with lawyers.

“I really don’t try to have any sort of agenda for oral argument. I’m not trying to prove a point, or trap lawyers,” he said. “I ask questions about things that I’m genuinely concerned about, and thinking about, and where I really need help. That’s really how I view oral argument, as a dialogue between the lawyers and the justices where the justices can ask the lawyers, ‘Here are the things that I think are important about this case. Tell me what’s right; tell me what’s wrong, or tell me how I should resolve these thoughts and conflicts in my head.’ ”

McDonald, who was born in Thailand during the Vietnam War and whose mother is Vietnamese, is the first person of color to sit on the Iowa Supreme Court. McDonald says that distinction gives him an opportunity to advise aspiring young lawyers.

“It is an honor to be the first person of color, or first minority, appointed to the Supreme Court and I recognize the distinction,” he said. “I do think about it in terms of the context of leadership, and maybe mentorship to younger attorneys, and to the extent that my appointment to the bench can inspire them, or I can inspire them as a model for them for their own careers, then I think that’s great.”

This and previous episodes of “In the Balance” are posted on iTunes, Spotify, and on the Judicial Branch website, www.iowacourts.gov.




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