How Iowa’s appellate courts have changed over four decades

By: Rox Laird on January 26th, 2017

The Iowa Court of Appeals is celebrating an anniversary this month. Forty years ago five judges appointed to the new court by Gov. Robert D. Ray began hearing cases to relieve the growing workload of the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Legislature’s creation of the intermediate appeals court was the first step in a dramatic transformation of Iowa’s appellate court process. Indeed, few practitioners today can fully appreciate how much the process has changed over the past four decades.

Before the Court of Appeals was established in 1977, the Iowa Supreme Court – which then numbered nine justices – heard all appeals. And as the workload grew, so did the backlog. “At the time, it was taking about two years for the supreme court to process appeals,” according to a Judicial Branch news release.

The appeals court was designed to quickly turn cases around: The new court heard its first cases on Jan. 17, 1977, and began issuing decisions just 12 days later. It remains a productive court, issuing 1,390 opinions last year, the largest number in its 40-year history, according to the news release.

Two decades after the appeals court was created, the Legislature took another step toward restructuring Iowa’s appellate courts.

At the time, the nine-member Iowa Supreme Court divided its workload by hearing cases in panels of five. In 1998, the Legislature reduced the Court to seven justices who then began hearing cases en banc (that is, with all members of the Court participating). At the same time, the Court of Appeals was enlarged to nine judges.

Then, in 2013, the Iowa Supreme Court established a term system, similar to the practice of the U.S. Supreme Court, running from Sept. 1 through June 30 each year with the two-month interregnum devoted to Judicial Branch administrative matters.

Before establishing 10-month terms, cases might have dragged for a year or more. The term system imposed a timetable for moving cases through the pipeline. As a result, appeals are now typically decided by the end of the term in which they were heard.

More subtle changes may be attributed to the change. For one, the Supreme Court justices now have time to focus on developing and refining court rules, launching special projects such as business, family and drug courts. For another, the justices are getting out to meet the public when the Court takes oral arguments to communities across the state and the justices meet with citizens and speak to school classes.

As Chief Justice Mark Cady said in an interview for the Iowa State Bar Association last year, “The thing that really drew me to the concept was having a beginning and an ending point. I had been on the court for almost 15 years, and you felt like you were almost always on the treadmill and you never got a moment to step away. The decision-making component is overpowering. You’re always thinking about these cases. So it’s nice to say, OK, we’re done for two months and let’s think about the vision we have for this justice system.”

Also, this change might in part explain why there are more separate concurring and dissenting opinions written by members of the Court. In addition to being relieved of an overwhelming caseload, the Court has narrowed its focus to novel legal questions, often involving constitutional rights, where there is room for honest disagreement. And the justices are not shy about airing those differences (see “It’s still Cady’s Court” for Ryan Koopmans’ statistical analysis of the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2015-16 term that breaks down dissents).

Finally, the Court of Appeals has served as a stepping stone for judges who aspire to the Supreme Court: Eight Supreme Court justices were elevated from the Court of Appeals, including three current members of the Court – Chief Justice Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Edward Mansfield. (Go to the Judicial Branch website to see a complete list of judges who have served on the Iowa Court of Appeals).

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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