Three Iowa Supreme Court finalists, in their own words

After eight years as an all-male club, the Iowa Supreme Court will soon gain its third ever woman justice.

Members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission submitted three names to Governor Kim Reynolds on July 10: District Court Judge Susan Christensen of Harlan, private attorney Terri Combs of West Des Moines, and District Court Chief Judge Kellyann Lekar of Waterloo. Within the next 30 days, Reynolds must choose one of those women to replace retiring Justice Bruce Zager.

Follow me after the jump for highlights from each finalist’s application and remarks before the commission.

Fourteen women and seven men interviewed with the Judicial Nominating Commission on July 9 and 10. (One of the original 22 candidates did not proceed with her application.) Though many attorneys of both genders were highly qualified, I’m glad the commission submitted an all-female short list to Reynolds. No other state currently has an all-male high court. Only two women have ever served on the Iowa Supreme Court. It’s long past time for that body to look more like the population of Iowa.

SUSAN CHRISTENSEN: “EXPERIENCE AND WISDOM IN OTHER AREAS OF LIFE”

Christensen has served as a judge in the Fourth Judicial District, covering nine southwest Iowa counties, since November 2015. For eight years before that, she was a district associate judge presiding over mostly juvenile or minor criminal matters. (District associate judges can’t handle cases involving violations above a class D felony.) She spent the first part of her career in a small firm, combining a private practice centered on family law with work as an assistant county attorney in Shelby and Harrison counties.

Almost all of Christensen’s experience is in state courts. She estimated that she has spent half her time on domestic cases, about 30 percent on criminal cases, 10 percent on juvenile cases, and the rest on a mix of civil, probate, or administrative law matters. She presented one oral argument before the Iowa Supreme Court and three before the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The application form asked candidates to explain “how your appointment would enhance the court.” Christensen wrote about her “diverse background of personal and legal experience,” adding that while legal qualifications were “undeniably important” for members of the Supreme Court,

I believe it is also of utmost importance for them to be well rounded and possess experience and wisdom in other areas of life. This is where I stand out as a candidate. The breadth and depth of my legal knowledge and experience has not only led me to my current position as a district court judge, but made me a strong, confident and loving wife, mother and community member. […] I am a better wife/mother because I am passionate about my career, and I am a better lawyer/judge because of my unique personal experiences. I believe my empathy and integrity would be assets to the Supreme Court given the importance of collaboration and collegiality in deciding difficult appellate issues.

I also believe our Supreme Court should reflect the people whom we serve–people from all parts of our state who have busy lives, challenging situations and deep devotion to those we love and want to protect. I am the person who can provide that representation. The Fourth Judicial District is made up of the nine most southwest counties in the state. For the past 11 years, I regularly traveled to each of those county courthouses and had the privilege of meeting community people who required the assistance of our judicial system to resolve disputes. I have watched the lives of Iowans unfold before my eyes. […] I believe my extensive experience in those very trenches would strengthen the Iowa Supreme Court and provide a needed perspective. […]

Christensen also referred the commission to her answer to question 36, regarding “any additional information that may reflect positively on you.” Some candidates left that part of the application blank, but Christensen–probably aware that others in the field would have stronger legal credentials–submitted two full pages of text. She cited her passion for the law and the following qualities:

• competence: significant experience in several areas of the law; “an ability to effectively communicate with the attorneys, parties and general public” to maintain “an efficient courtroom”; rulings written in a way parties can understand and an appellate court can easily review.

• work ethic: being prepared for court; filing rulings in a timely manner; well organized and hard-working; active participation on committees and work groups. “My commitment to committee/task force work would bode well with the Supreme Court’s many administrative responsibilities. I am cut out for that type of work.”

• demeanor/temperament: being civil and patient “even if there is chaos or disruption in the courtroom”; treating others with dignity and respect.

Christensen went on to discuss “important personal things”: she and her husband met in the first grade, grew up in Harlan, and have been married for 37 years. They have experience owning small businesses. When not working, they spend time with their five children and four grandchildren. “I also enjoy playing the piano for church or community events and take pride in being known as the ‘Cookie Judge’ by many children in the juvenile court system.”

A review of my college history (#16) shows that I attended several different colleges during the early years of our marriage. To some, it may appear that I was not focused. On the contrary, I was acutely focused–on my marriage and my family. I continued to work and attend college full time while Jay also worked and attended college in order to pick up required courses for his eventual acceptance into optometry school.

Throughout our marriage, Jay and I worked hard to balance our parenting responsibilities with the demands of college. I was often faced with difficult decisions such as, “Should I accept an invitation to attend a more prestigious school in a community with no family support, or should I accept an invitation to attend a different school surrounded by family and support?” I have never regretted my choices. I soon learned that a decision made for the sake of our family was always the right decision. […]

Finally, Christensen wrote about raising a son with cerebral palsy. “Without a doubt, having a handicapped child has had the most profound effect on our lives. […] if Nicholas were cured tomorrow–if he could walk and talk like other people–I would not want to change how his disability has affected my life. I am a better person because of him, and I believe this is reflected in the way I handle myself as a wife, mother, friend or judge.”

Here is Christensen’s interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission.

A few moments stood out for me:

• Beginning around the 9:00 mark, Christensen described a “typical day in my life.” One recent Monday, she had to get through about 70 cases on the docket during the morning in Mills County and about 50 the same afternoon in Montgomery County. She spent about seven hours the night before preparing for all of those cases.

• Beginning around 10:15, Christensen discussed the two pathways for cases to reach the Iowa Supreme Court: the District Court level and juvenile court. She asserted that she is the only candidate with extensive background in both types of cases.

Without Justice Zager, there will be nobody up there with trial court experience, other than Justice Cady, who at the judges’ meeting a couple of weeks ago, admitted that his experience is 25 years old. As the court is right now, no one has juvenile experience, with the exception of Justice Cady for two years, which was 32 years ago.

Note: as will be seen below, Lekar also has handled many juvenile cases during her tenure on the District Court bench (much longer than Christensen’s).

• Christensen mentioned the “geographic diversity” she would bring to the table, saying she would continue to live in Shelby County if named to the Supreme Court. (around 12:50)

• A commission member asked whether she had “given any thought to the disparate impact” of the criminal justice system on minorities, particularly African Americans. (around 17:00) Christensen acknowledged that living in a rural area, the courts where she has worked don’t have as much racial diversity as some other parts of Iowa. But she said that as a judge, she has received “quite a bit of training on implicit bias.” Even if she receives a case late, at the sentencing phase, she tries to consider whether the defendant might have faced implicit bias earlier in the charging or trial process.

My strong hunch is that Reynolds will select Christensen. The judge’s small-town upbringing, non-traditional path through higher education, and work/family balancing act echo themes of television commercials the governor’s campaign has aired this year (“This is for,” “Longer,” and “Driveway”).

In addition, the Fourth Judicial District is near the area Reynolds represented in the Iowa Senate before becoming lieutenant governor (though only Montgomery County was part of both Reynolds’ Senate district and the territory Christensen covers as a judge). I also suspect Reynolds will consider it an asset that Christensen’s father, Jerry Larson, was the longest-serving Iowa Supreme Court justice in state history.

TERRI COMBS: “I HAVE NO PERSONAL AGENDA OTHER THAN TO UPHOLD THE LAW”

Combs clerked for a judge on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals during the early 1980s. She then practiced law in New York City for about a decade, focusing on securities litigation, regulatory enforcement, and commercial matters. She has continued to practice law in New York as well as Iowa since moving to the Des Moines area with her husband 24 years ago. Combs has handled cases in federal and state courts all over the country. She is finishing up her second term on the thirteen-member management board for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm, which has more than 750 attorneys in its many offices.

On her written application, Combs estimated that she has spent about 85 percent of her time on civil cases, 15 percent on administrative, and nothing in other areas of the law (domestic, criminal, juvenile, or probate). Roughly 50 percent of her court appearances have been at the federal level, 25 percent in state courts, 15 percent in administrative agencies, and 10 percent in other tribunals. She has presented oral arguments before the Iowa Supreme Court twice, the Iowa Court of Appeals once, a federal circuit court once, and state appellate courts in Illinois and California.

Asked why she was seeking the position, Combs wrote,

The rule of law and respect for our judicial institutions are critical to our society. Being able to foster that and serve Iowans would allow me to bring my experience, temperament and scholarship to this important role. The idea of serving as a judge has appealed to me ever since I worked as a law clerk many years ago. It is an important job, and one worth doing.

As for “how your appointment would enhance the court,” Combs was more succinct than Christensen. Her response in full:

My law practice spans a 35-year period of ongoing litigation, trials, arbitrations, appeals and regulatory administrative investigations in different forums and jurisdictions. I have dealt with everything from multi-million-dollar complex business cases that carries criminal and regulatory issues, to smaller disputes for clients who could little afford a lawsuit. The practice of law is also changing with technology and judges have to understand how this affects the process. Practicing through these years impressed upon me the importance of process, fairness, prompt rulings, and the need for good courts. I have no personal agenda other than to uphold the law and to enhance respect for the Court and its authority.

Here’s the Combs interview:

Moments that stood out for me:

• Combs discussed her breadth of experience, having represented clients in federal jury trials and in state court hearings in Dubuque, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, and Sioux City, as well as Des Moines. (beginning around the 6:45 mark)

• In addition to financial services clients, she has represented agriculture, construction, or entertainment companies. She has also handled at least ten arbitration cases and has appeared before federal or state regulatory agencies on administrative matters.

• Her methodology as a judge would be, “Don’t decide a case at the beginning. Wait until you know all of the facts, the record, what’s in it, what does the statute say, what is the case law that’s out there, and get an understanding of the entire universe that you have to work with.” She likes to read the relevant cases herself and not rely on summaries by others. (around 9:30) Near the end of her interview, Combs commented that she’s never relied on a junior associate to prepare her for a deposition.

• Judicial Nominating Commission member Lance Horbach, who is not an attorney, said during the Q&A that he asked acquaintances for feedback on many of the applicants, and everyone described Combs as “super-smart.” (around 12:50) Combs countered, “I would say they’re wrong. I have never thought I was super-smart. I think I work hard.” She writes down important points ahead of time, unlike some attorneys who can speak at length with no notes. “I’m going to read all the cases, and I’m going to be prepared.”

• One of the commissioners asked Combs how she would overcome the “disadvantage” of having less experience with non-business-related cases. (starting around 26:00) Combs admitted she would have to get up to speed on other areas of the law. She studied criminal procedure in law school and had some experience with that as a clerk. If appointed to the high court, she would work hard and would learn from colleagues with more background in areas such as estate, family, or juvenile issues.

Combs must be very good at her job to have risen to the senior management level in a high-powered national law firm. She has also been lead counsel on complex litigation, which would be an asset on a court that hands down final decisions on some of the state’s most complicated disputes.

KELLYANN LEKAR: “A HISTORY OF EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP AND DECISION MAKING”

Lekar worked as a civil defense attorney and as a plaintiff’s attorney before becoming a District Court judge in 2005. For the last six years, she has been chief judge of the First Judicial District, which encompasses two urban counties (Black Hawk and Dubuque) and nine rural counties in northeast Iowa. Lekar has also served on various boards and committees including the Judicial Council, made up of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, and chief judges of the eight judicial districts.

Almost all of Lekar’s experience has been in state courts. Taking into account her work in private practice and her years on the bench, she estimated that she has spent about 30 percent of her time on criminal cases, another 30 percent on domestic cases, 20 percent on civil cases, 13 percent on juvenile cases, 5 percent on probate and 2 percent on administrative cases. She has presented oral arguments to the Iowa Supreme Court twice and the Iowa Court of Appeals eight times.

As for how Lekar would enhance the court, she wrote on her application,

I believe that I am uniquely positioned to contribute to both the decision making and the administrative functions of the Supreme Court of Iowa in terms of trial court background and administrative experience. I believe I can enhance the Supreme Court of Iowa by bringing a broad base of courtroom exposure, extensive trial court experience, a knowledge of the role of judicial administration, an appreciation for all of the individuals who make up the entirety of the Judicial Branch staff, an established record of building and supporting cross disciplinary initiatives to improve court processes, a history of effective leadership and decision making and well developed collaborative skills which are imperative for consensus building.

The citizens of Iowa benefit most from a diversity of perspectives brought together in professional and robust examination of the legal issues brought before the Supreme Court. My years of civil practice and my trial court experience in all aspects of civil and criminal law provide me with a diverse perspective that has both breadth and depth which will allow me to join in that professional and robust examination of legal issues. […] My knowledge and understanding of the administrative challenges that come with the operation of a judicial branch and my extensive experience in working in collaboration with judges, attorneys, judicial branch staff and other community stakeholders to solve problems and implement innovative projets will ideally suit me to add my perspective to the administrative work of the Supreme Court.

Here’s the Lekar interview:

Moments that stood out for me:

• Beginning around 5:00, Lekar discussed three factors that distinguish her among the other qualified contenders for the Supreme Court position. First, ability to “bring the perspective and the interest of both urban and rural Iowans to the Supreme Court.” She has covered court days and presided over trials in every county in the district. She’s presided over divorces, small business cases, property disputes in both country and city, high-volume docket days in criminal law. “I know the attorneys, the litigants, the law enforcements, the communities, and the way of life in a large corner of the state of Iowa.”

• Lekar said the second factor in her favor is a “proven record of court leadership.” She has pursued personal and professional growth opportunities, and has been involved in innovative projects such as domestic violence court, family law mediation, and mental health jail diversion. She recalled a two-week road trip around the First Judicial District with Justice Zager in 2012, when she was new to the chief judge position and he was only a year into his tenure on the Iowa Supreme Court. They met informally with clerk staff, law enforcement, boards of supervisors and other county officials, and attorneys in those counties. They discussed court management issues and how to serve vulnerable populations.

• The third important point about Lekar’s qualifications was “legal experience that is both broad and deep in areas that are important to the Supreme Court.” As chief judge, she has been involved in a wide range of civil matters and criminal cases ranging from simple misdemeanors to class A felonies. Starting around 11:00, Lekar noted that the Iowa Supreme Court heard 94 cases during its last term, of which about one-third were criminal cases. If you include juvenile and post-conviction cases, about half of the high court’s case load was in that area, where she has extensive experience. Black Hawk County is a “high-volume” county, and she has presided over more than 50 criminal jury trials, has taken more than a thousand colloquys, and has been involved in “countless” suppression hearings and other areas of the law that come before the Supreme Court. She also has substantial experience in the juvenile justice system.

• Lekar was asked about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and her involvement in a Black Hawk County probation reform project. (around 20:00) She noted that “disproportionate minority contact” is an issue locally, statewide, and nationally. It should be addressed at all points during the process: initial appearances (setting of bond, pre-trial release), during jury trials, sentencing, and probation decisions. Court officials realized that in Black Hawk County, probation officers would often let technical violations stack up to the point that judges had no option but to send offenders back to prison. The reform project allows earlier intervention in those cases, so the court can have contact and get the person back on track, with the goal of avoiding future violations. That would help people stay in the community, remain with their families, keep their jobs, and hopefully not go back to prison.

• Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who chairs the State Judicial Nominating Commission, mentioned that Lekar was the only candidate he could recall with experience on the Judicial Council. (around 24:00) That body would make recommendations on closing courthouses due to budget constraints. Lekar noted that the Judicial Council merely advises the Supreme Court on such matters; justices would make the final call. She knows the needs of staff and clerks in the eleven counties that are part of her district and how to allocate resources to keep courthouses open.

If Reynolds believes the next Iowa Supreme Court justice should have District Court experience (as Zager did before his appointment in 2011), Lekar seems vastly more qualified than Christensen. She’s heard many more cases over a longer period, she has presided over urban as well as rural courtrooms, and she has held the most senior post in a judicial district.

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