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).


Most Iowa lawyers back retention of all 66 judges on the Nov. 8 ballot

By: Rox Laird on September 29th, 2016

Voting begins officially today when Iowans can begin casting absentee ballots at county auditor offices.

That will be the first time many voters will see the complete General Election ballot – including the names of 66 Iowa appeals court and trial court judges standing for retention.

Voters often wonder how to vote on judicial retention if they have no idea how well an individual judge is performing in his or her job.

To help them out, the Iowa State Bar Association asks the lawyers who know these judges best.

The Bar Association surveys the lawyers who frequently appear before the judges standing for retention, asking them to rate their performance and say whether they should be retained on the bench.

The vast majority of the 1,495 Iowa lawyers who participated in the Bar Association’s 2016 Judicial Performance Review said all judges on the Nov. 8 ballot should be retained.

That includes the three Iowa Supreme Court justices up for retention: Chief Justice Mark Cady (with 91 percent retention support) and Associate Justices Brent Appel (82 percent) and Daryl Hecht (88 percent).

It also includes four judges on the Iowa Court of Appeals up for retention – Chief Judge David Danilson (94 percent) and Judges Richard Doyle (94 percent), Amanda Potterfield (92 percent) and Gayle Vogel (91 percent).

An average of 92 percent of lawyers participating in the survey supported retention of all 59 Iowa District Court judges on this year’s ballot.

Complete results may be found on the Iowa State Bar Association website. The Iowa Judicial Branch website has a voters guide. And the Iowa Secretary of State website has a complete list of judges on the ballot.


Iowa Court of Appeals: Reversing an agency’s fact-based ruling is the “Bigfoot of the legal community”

By: Administrator on May 11th, 2016

By Ryan Koopmans

When an administrative agency makes a ruling that depends, at least in part, upon factual determinations, it’s difficult to get that ruling overturned on appeal.  This morning, in a two-page opinion, Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Christopher McDonald tells us how difficult:

We begin and end our analysis with the following observation: “The administrative process presupposes judgment calls are to be left to the agency. Nearly all disputes are won or lost there.” Sellers v. Emp’t Appeal Bd., 531 N.W.2d 645, 646 (Iowa Ct. App. 1995) (citations omitted). A case reversing final agency action on the ground the agency’s action is unsupported by substantial evidence or is irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable is the Bigfoot of the legal community—an urban legend, rumored to exist but never confirmed. Here, the employer had a full and fair opportunity to present its evidence and argument to the deputy commissioner and the commissioner without success. The employer challenged the agency’s findings, conclusions, and application of the facts to the law in the district court without success. Like the district court, we have carefully examined the grainy eight millimeter film of the administrative record. We can add little to the thorough and well-reasoned ruling of the district court, and we will not reiterate the same analysis here. We conclude the agency’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, and its decision is not irrational, illogical, unreasonable, unjustifiable, arbitrary and capricious, or legally erroneous. The search for Bigfoot continues. The judgment of the district court is affirmed without further opinion.

But see:


Police can’t detain a car’s occupants simply because there was “movement inside the vehicle with moisture on the windows.”

By: Administrator on November 15th, 2015

By Ryan Koopmans

Oskaloosa, Saturday, December 14.  The time? 1:45 a.m.  Closing time.

Officer Blaine Shutts is on patrol.  The location? V.F.W. Post #2237. Shutts sees two cars in a nearby lot with lights on.  He circles the block.  Now there’s only one set of headlights; but still the same two cars.  Why turn off the lights, Shutts wonders.

He approaches; notices “movement inside” and “moisture on the windows.”  What could possibly be going on inside the car? At this time of night? On a weekend? Outside a bar?

Officer Shutts is unsure.  He illuminates his red lights.  The situation needs further investigation.

Inside the car is a man and a woman.  They were “just talking,” they tell him.  But the man was talking (in a running vehicle, in the driver’s seat) with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.  So Officer Shutts takes him into custody.

*         *          *

Those were the facts that were presented in State v. Elder.  And the legal question was whether those facts justified Officer Shutts’s “detention” of the car’s occupants.

Last week, the Iowa Court of Appeals said no.  According to the three-judge panel, “movement” inside a car with fogged-up windows does not give an officer reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Indeed, even Officer Shutts admitted, on cross-examination, that those facts do not indicate  that “somebody was doing something wrong inside” the car (wrong meaning criminal).  The Court of Appeals also ruled that, because nothing seemed to be amiss with the car (flat tire, engine trouble, etc.), the officer could not investigate the situation under the “community caretaker” doctrine.

Iowa teenagers are breathing a sigh of relief.


ISBA annual meeting will feature presentations by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals

By: Administrator on June 4th, 2015

By Ryan Koopmans

On Thursday, June 18, the Iowa State Bar Association appellate practice committee will put on a morning CLE as part of the ISBA’s annual meeting.  For anyone who practices before Iowa’s appellate courts–or for anyone who wants an insight into how Iowa’s case law is made–it will be a program worth attending.

There are three one-hour sessions. First, a Court of Appeals panel consisting of Chief Judge Danilson and Judges Doyle, Tabor, McDonald, and Miller will talk about the size of the court’s docket (it’s big), how they select cases for oral argument, what persuades them, what doesn’t, and what mistakes attorneys frequently make (hint: see here).  

Next, Clerk of Court Donna Humpal will give an update on the appellate courts’ transition to EDMS and talk about how the Court operates behind the scenes.

The session will conclude with a Supreme Court panel consisting of Justices Hecht, Appel, and Mansfield.  Since 2011, the Court has made several significant changes, including the implementation of the term system and the amendments to the rules that govern further review.  The justices will talk about those changes, and others, and will tell the audience how the court operates.  For instance: What do the justices consider when reviewing applications for interlocutory appeal? How many votes are required to grant further review? How are opinions assigned?

All three panels will take questions, time permitting.  To register for the event, and the other activities at the annual meeting, go to the ISBA’s website.


Don’t forget about the appendix–we use that, you know

By: Administrator on June 11th, 2014

By Ryan Koopmans

This morning, Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Richard Doyle reminds us why the appendix shouldn’t be an afterthought:

I concur, but write separately to address a not uncommon appendix infirmity. Implicit in our rules of appellate procedure is that the parties include legible materials in the appendix. At best, the inclusion of illegible materials in the appendix is of little value to the reader, and at worst, the source of considerable frustration. We have previously stressed the importance of providing legible materials in the appendix. See Slycord v. Garrett, No. 13-1192, 2014 WL 1714955, at *3 n.3 (Iowa Ct. App. April 30, 2014). I reiterate what I said in Slycord. See id. Visualization of the subject matter of a land or property dispute is critical to a full understanding of the dispute. Plat maps, aerial photographs, photographs, and drawings are routinely used as trial exhibits to aid the finder of fact. Color is commonly employed in these exhibits to clearly delineate boundaries and ownership of lands, and witnesses testifying at trial typically refer to “this color parcel” or “that color line.” When appearing in an appendix on appeal, all too often these peacock-colored models of clarity have been transformed into illegible black-and-white head-scratchers. Such is the case here. It is frustrating to an appellate judge reading transcript testimony referring to colored exhibits while at the same time looking at black-and-white reproductions in the appendix. To be sure, the original trial exhibits are typically available to this court—but not readily available to those judges who office outside Des Moines. While we are cognizant of the fact that color reproductions in the appendix are more costly than black-and-white copies, it would be helpful to the court if litigants would at least include in the appendix color copies of those exhibits most critical to understanding the dispute.

This court’s mandate is to justly decide a high volume of appeals. See Iowa Ct. R. 21.11. The appendix is readily available to all. Clarity in the appendix promotes judicial efficiency, thus aiding this court in working toward meeting its mandate. With full implementation of EDMS and electronic appellate filing, the paper appendix will go the way of the dinosaur. But until then, all we suggest is that the parties exercise a little more care in producing their appendices.

That’s a good reminder for all of us on how important the appendix is to the judges and thus to the case. The briefs are key, of course. But it’s the appendix that the judges come back to again and again. That’s the document that’s tabbed, dog-eared, and tattered by the end of the appeal. And if it’s poorly organized or the documents are illegible, that frustrates the judge and reflects on the lawyers who signed it.


Gov. Branstad Appoints Judge Bower to Court of Appeals

By: Administrator on December 8th, 2011

By Ryan Koopmans

Governor Branstad has appointed District Judge Thomas Bower to the Iowa Court of Appeals.  Judge Bower, an 18-year veteran of the First Judicial District and current Chief Judge of the district, will fill the vacancy left by Chief Judge Rosemary Shaw Sackett.  

This is Governor Branstad’s second appointment to the Court of Appeals this year.  In June, he tapped Judge Michael Mullins for the appellate court.

Congratulations, Judge Bower.


Iowa Court of Appeals Affirms Lack of Standing in Case Seeking Separate Ballot for Judicial Retention Elections

By: Administrator on December 7th, 2011

By Ryan Koopmans

Today the Iowa Court of Appeals decided that “printing a judicial election ballot on the same piece of paper as the general election ballot” will not lead to a “constitutional crisis,” and thus there is insufficient justification to waive the requirement of standing.  In so doing, the court affirmed the dismissal of a case brought by three Iowa attorneys (and voters) who sought a declaratory judgment that the use of a combined ballot to conduct both the general election and judicial retention elections violates Article V, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution and is thus “illegal and void.”  The plaintiffs also sought a ruling “requiring a separate ballot for judicial elections in the future.”

The plaintiffs had asked the court to apply an exception to the standing requirement, which generally demands that plaintiffs show they are interested in the litigation and have suffered an injury in order to pursue a claim, when “the issue is of utmost importance and the constitutional protections are most needed.”  As the Court of Appeals noted, Iowa’s Supreme Court “has recognized the possibility of a ‘great public importance’ exception to standing,” but “has never found an issue of sufficient public import to apply the exception.”  Here, the Court of Appeals decided that the propriety of the use of a combined ballot “is not a question of the ‘utmost importance’ requiring us to apply, for the first time, an exception to standing.”  The case is George v. Schultz.


Commission Picks Three for Court of Appeals Spot

By: Administrator on November 8th, 2011

By Ryan Koopmans

The State Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed 18 candidates today for the Court of Appeals and selected three: (1) Thomas Bower, chief judge of the First Judicial District; (2) Susan Christensen, district associate judge of the Fourth Judicial District; and (3) Jeanie  Vaudt, assistant attorney general.

Judge Christensen, the daughter of former Justice, and now Senior Judge, Jerry Larson, was a finalist for the last opening.  Judge Bower and Vaudt are also prior applicants.  Governor Branstad has 30 days to make his pick. 


Court of Appeals Vacancy Announced

By: Administrator on October 3rd, 2011

By Ryan Koopmans

The State Judicial Nominating Commission is calling for applications to fill the the vacancy that will be created when Chief Judge Rosemary Sackett retires in January.  Applications are due by October 31, and the Commission will meet on November 8 and 9 to interview and select three nominees.


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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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