Background on Dana Oxley, fourth woman to serve on Iowa Supreme Court

Two women will be among the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices for the first time since 2003.

Governor Kim Reynolds announced on January 28 that she named Dana Oxley to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Chief Justice Mark Cady.

Oxley has extensive experience in appellate courts. For the past nine years, she has been in private practice in Cedar Rapids, “focused almost exclusively on civil appellate work and motion work in cases involving complex legal issues,” arguing cases in the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. From 2001 to 2011, she was a career law clerk to Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Hansen. In that role, she wrote in her application,

I researched and drafted opinions and wrote bench memos with recommended outcomes, which required me to analyze a wide variety of legal issues, including criminal statutory, sentencing, and constitutional issues; habeas corpus; federal statutory issues, including both statutory construction and constitutional challenges; employment; tax; civil rights; immigration; constitutional issues; civil and criminal procedure; and a variety of state law issues that came before the Court under its diversity jurisdiction. In addition to traditional clerking functions, I supervised Judge Hansen’s term clerks and assisted Judge in administrative capacities, including reviewing Applications for Rehearing or Hearing En Banc and handling motions to the Court. Judge Hansen was Chief Judge of the Eighth Circuit in 2002 and 2003, during which he was responsible for complaints filed against federal judges at every level within the Eighth Circuit. In my capacity as a career clerk, I assisted Judge Hansen in reviewing judicial complaints and making recommendations concerning resolution of the complaints.

Perhaps most impressive: Oxley gave birth to two children while attending the University of Iowa law school (one shortly before fall finals in her first year, the other during spring finals week in her third year). She graduated third in her class, which would be quite an accomplishment even without any competing family obligations.

Near the beginning of her interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission, Oxley commented,

In one way, I would prefer not to be here at all. That none of us were here. And that’s because Chief Justice Cady’s passing is a huge loss to the court and to the state. I think we all expected the Cady court to continue for a good number of years.

His legacy was not yet complete, despite the many wonderful things that he did: not only the numerous opinions that he wrote, but his work in taking the court on the road, helping establish and expanding the state’s specialty courts, and just bringing dignity and respect to the judiciary. But the court’s work must go on, and I am humbled to sit here today […].

Oxley explained in her application that she would enjoy the intellectual challenge of serving on the Supreme Court.

I love studying the law. I love researching all sides of an unsettled issue, regardless of the area of law. I love digging into a technical statutory problem and contemplating the competing policy implications of the common law. I love dissecting a legal problem into digestible bites and then writing about it in a way that makes it easier for others to understand. I love the back and forth of a good debate, peeling each layer of argument away until the real core of the issue is revealed. I love considering the ramifications of an issue not only for a particular situation, but also for how it might affect others into the future.

Asked how her appointment would enhance the court, Oxley discussed her upbringing on a southwest Iowa farm, which “instilled in me a strong work ethic and a positive outlook on life.” Prior to practicing law, she gained perspective from working in a small business. As Judge Hansen’s career law clerk, she researched “hundreds of cases involving a myriad of legal issues ranging from the ramifications that followed the sea change in federal sentencing after Booker, to civil rights and constitutional issues, to the more mundane—but equally important—issues of statutory interpretation and the rules of criminal and civil procedure.” Oxley added,

The most challenging, and rewarding, part of clerking was drafting an opinion that either held the critical second vote or, on occasion, pulled one or both of the other votes to Judge Hansen’s position. It taught me the importance of judicial restraint, an appreciation for the distinct but equally vital functions of the branches of a democratic government, and respect for the individuals involved in the cases before the Court. I learned to write not only for the parties, particularly the losing party, but to draft opinions with an eye toward future consequences of the opinion, both intended and unintended. “Get it right, keep it tight” is a mantra I took into my practice. Judge Hansen and I did not always agree, but our differing positions taught me to objectively consider my own analysis and, I believe, made Judge Hansen’s opinion cleaner and tighter.

The nine years since rejoining the practice of law have driven home to me the consequences of the decisions judges make and the real-life effects on the parties. In practice, I quickly gained an appreciation for a judge’s restraint in allowing the parties to develop the record and raise the legal issues most critical to their clients, even if the judge might see a different issue of interest. I use the objectivity I learned while clerking to identify the greatest vulnerability in my client’s legal position and develop the most compelling answer to its attack. […]

I do not have an agenda. I believe it is critical for the Supreme Court to set the tone for the Bar by demanding the highest legal analysis while maintaining civility among the Court’s members, even when—particularly when—they disagree. I believe a justice has a duty to consider all sides of an issue openly and without judgment before reaching a decision. I believe a justice makes a better decision when he or she is surrounded by others who will challenge his or her views. I believe the Judiciary’s role is limited, yet critical, to ensuring that laws set by the legislature are construed as intended, doing so with a pragmatic consideration of the resulting construction. I believe the Court must jealously guard Iowa citizens’ fundamental constitutional rights without bias. I believe the Court is an institution, not a group of seven individuals, and as such has an obligation to give due respect to stare decisis and the separation of powers between the branches of government. That said, the Court may not blindly apply its prior decisions, but must be vigilant in protecting the rule of law. I believe consensus is important, but should not override a justice’s deeply held legal convictions.

With these beliefs, I would bring to the Court significant experience in considering wide- ranging and complex legal issues from the perspective of both a decision-maker and an advocate, a healthy respect for the institution of the Court as well as for colleagues and their views, the demeanor to objectively consider all sides of an issue before reaching a decision, and the conviction to stand by my views when they differ from those of my colleagues.

Now that the Supreme Court has a full complement of justices, they will soon elect a new chief. (David Wiggins has served as acting chief justice since Cady’s untimely death.) Multiple sources have speculated that Susan Christensen, whom Reynolds appointed in 2018, will be the court’s next leader.

Christensen and Oxley are the third and fourth women to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court. Their predecessors Linda Neuman and Marsha Ternus served together from 1993 (when Governor Terry Branstad appointed Ternus) to Neuman’s retirement in 2003. Ternus made history as Iowa’s first woman chief justice.

P.S.–I predicted Reynolds would select a different finalist, Matthew McDermott, for this judgeship. That was before I knew she would soon have an opportunity to replace retiring Justice Wiggins. If McDermott applies for that vacancy, I expect the State Judicial Nominating Commission will include him on the candidate list sent to Reynolds, and the governor will appoint him, for the reasons discussed here.

Appendix: Dana Oxley’s interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission:

Dana Oxley’s application for the Iowa Supreme Court vacancy:

January 28 news release:

DES MOINES– Gov. Kim Reynolds today announced her appointment of Dana Oxley as a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Oxley, of Swisher, currently practices law with Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, P.L.C. in Cedar Rapids, and serves as an adjunct law professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. Previously, she served as a career judicial law clerk for Judge David R. Hansen on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Oxley received her law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law and her undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa.

“Dana Oxley is an exceptional lawyer with a uniquely Iowa story,” said Gov. Reynolds. “She will be a valuable new addition to the Iowa Supreme Court. I look forward to watching her serve Iowans in this important role for years to come.”

Oxley is the governor’s third appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court. She fills the vacancy that arose because of the death of Chief Justice Mark Cady.

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