Rapid Iowa Supreme Court turnover to continue as David Wiggins retires

After nearly eight years with no vacancy, the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court is about to lose its fourth justice in less than two years.

Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins announced on January 10 that he will retire, effective March 13. He has served on the Iowa Supreme Court since Governor Tom Vilsack appointed him in 2003.

Wiggins chaired the State Judicial Nominating Commission from 2011 until the spring of 2019, when Republican legislators approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law removing that role from the second most-senior justice. The same law also shortened the chief justice’s term and gave the governor an additional appointment to the body that recommends candidates for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Wiggins will deliver the annual Condition of the Judiciary speech to the Republican-controlled Iowa legislature on January 15. He became acting chief justice in November after the unexpected passing of Mark Cady, who in 2016 named Wiggins to act in his place in case of absence or inability to perform the chief justice’s duties.

The whole court will elect a new chief after Governor Kim Reynolds appoints one of three finalists the State Judicial Nominating Commission referred to her yesterday. The newest justice appears likely to be Matthew McDermott, a well-connected Republican attorney from a Des Moines law firm where current Justices Edward Mansfield and Christopher McDonald once worked. The court’s next leader will surely be one of the conservative justices, possibly Thomas Waterman or Susan Christensen.

Some of the most significant opinions Wiggins authored include:

  • a majority opinion in 2013 requiring the Iowa Department of Public Health to list on a child’s birth certificate the nonbirthing spouse in a lesbian marriage;
  • a unanimous ruling in 2015 striking down the Iowa Board of Medicine’s rule banning the use of telemedicine for medical abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics;
  • a majority opinion in 2016 that found county supervisors violated Iowa’s open meetings law by discussing official business in private through individual meetings with the county administrator.
  • Wiggins has regularly supported expansive views of individual rights under the Iowa Constitution, including many search and seizure cases as well as higher-profile examples like the 2009 Varnum v Brien marriage equality ruling and the 2018 majority opinion that found the state constitution protects a woman’s right to an abortion. He joined various Iowa Supreme Court opinions on juvenile sentencing that took into account recent scientific discoveries about the adolescent brain. At least two of the high court’s conservatives (Christensen and McDonald) are eager to roll those juvenile sentencing precedents back.

    A past president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association, Wiggins often represented clients in personal injury cases while in private practice. As a Supreme Court justice, he supported many litigants seeking recovery for personal injuries.

    If he were not retiring, Wiggins would have come up for retention in 2020. He wouldn’t have been able to serve a full eight-year term, as he would reach the mandatory retirement age of 72 in 2023. When his name last appeared on the ballot in 2012, social conservatives funded a campaign to remove him. But in a presidential election year, a bus tour and hundreds of thousands of dollars on two statewide television commercials could not repeat the success of the 2010 campaign against retaining three Iowa Supreme Court justices.

    The failure of the “No Wiggins” effort was likely one reason conservative groups did not attempt to oust Cady (the author of the Varnum opinion) and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht in 2016. The irony is that given how well that election turned out for Iowa Republicans, a million-dollar campaign against those judges might have been effective. Bleeding Heartland pondered that scenario here.

    Final note: Some governors have all the luck. Vilsack named four Supreme Court justices over eight years. His successor, Democrat Chet Culver, had only one opportunity to fill a high court vacancy in four years, and his choice (David Baker) was ousted in the 2010 retention vote. Terry Branstad appointed six Iowa Supreme Court justices during his first four terms and three more after returning to Terrace Hill in early 2011. Less than three years after she assumed the governor’s powers, Reynolds has already had three Supreme Court vacancies to fill. Wiggins’ retirement will make four.

    Appel will soon be Iowa’s only high court judge appointed by a Democrat. His term runs through 2024, but one wonders whether he will retire before then, given the growing conservative dominance over this state’s judiciary. The days when our courts could be relied on to protect civil rights are fading fast.

    CORRECTION: Appel will reach the mandatory retirement age of 72 in 2022. So Reynolds is guaranteed at least one more Supreme Court appointment.

    From the retiring justice’s official bio:

    Justice Wiggins, who was born in Chicago, earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1973.  He graduated with honors and Order of the Coif from Drake University Law School in 1976.  While in law school he served as associate editor of the law review.  Justice Wiggins began his legal career as an associate in the West Des Moines law firm of Williams, Hart, Lavorato & Kirtley.  He became a partner in the firm in 1979.

    Prior to joining the court, Justice Wiggins was active in numerous bar organizations including serving on the Board of Governors of the Iowa State Bar Association, and serving as president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association, senior counsel for the American College of Barristers, master emeritus of the C. Edwin Moore American Inn of Court, a founding sponsor of the Civil Justice Foundation, and an advocate for the American Board of Trial Advocates.  He served as chairperson of the Judicial Qualifications Commission from 2000 until he joined the supreme court. He received the Meritorious Achievement Award from the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association in 1999.

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