Governor Kim Reynolds on April 3 named Des Moines attorney Matthew McDermott to succeed retiring Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins. During seventeen years in private practice, McDermott has worked on a wide variety of cases. Bleeding Heartland posted lengthy excerpts from his application and interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission last month.
This appointment will continue the Iowa Supreme Court’s sharp turn to the right since 2018. As Bleeding Heartland discussed when McDermott was a finalist for the previous vacancy, he has worked closely with influential Republicans and handled some politically charged cases. He defended the 2017 collective bargaining law on behalf of the state and represented an Iowa House Republican seeking not to count 29 absentee ballots his constituents had cast on time.
On the other hand, McDermott has done a substantial amount of criminal defense work, and his application highlighted an unsuccessful appeal raising Fourth Amendment issues as one of his significant cases. Wiggins was a consistent voice for individual rights on the Supreme Court, including in many search and seizure cases.
I felt confident in January that McDermott would be Reynolds’ choice, but less so this time around. When I learned that the governor’s senior legal counsel Sam Langholz had ambitions to serve on the Supreme Court himself, I thought Reynolds might choose one of the other finalists, Mary Chicchelly or David May. Both have experience on the District Court bench. Among the current Supreme Court justices, only Susan Christensen (chosen as chief justice in February) previously presided over a District Court. Edward Mansfield and Christopher McDonald both served on the Iowa Court of Appeals before successfully applying for the Supreme Court. CORRECTION: McDonald was a District Court judge for a little more than a year before moving up to the Court of Appeals.
The Iowa Supreme Court will have four Reynolds appointees (Christensen, Christopher McDonald, Dana Oxley, and McDermott), two Terry Branstad appointees (Thomas Waterman and Mansfield), and one Tom Vilsack appointee (Brent Appel). In less than three years, Reynolds has appointed as many Supreme Court justices as Vilsack was able to name over eight years as governor. His successor, Chet Culver, had only one high court vacancy to fill, and that appointee (David Baker) was ousted in the 2010 retention vote. Branstad appointed six Iowa Supreme Court justices during his first four terms as governor and three more after returning to the job in early 2011.
Reynolds is guaranteed to name at least one more justice, since Appel will reach the mandatory retirement age of 72 in 2022, before the end of her term as governor.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Mansfield and McDonald have also worked at the Belin McCormick law firm in Des Moines, where McDermott has spent most of his career. During his interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission, McDermott was asked whether anyone should be concerned about three Iowa Supreme Court justices coming from the same firm. He responded that the three of them had very different backgrounds and that it has been more than a decade since Mansfield or McDonald worked at the firm. (Disclosure: the firm is named after my late father, David Belin, who passed away years before McDermott was hired.)
April 3 news release from the governor’s office:
DES MOINES– Gov. Kim Reynolds today announced her appointment of Matthew McDermott as a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.
“Matt is a talented, smart, and astute lawyer with deep Iowa roots,” said Gov. Reynolds. “His commitment to the rule of law and passion for service will now benefit all Iowans as he joins the Iowa Supreme Court.”
I’m deeply honored by this appointment, and grateful for the confidence the Governor has shown in me,” said McDermott. “I will work every day to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and the laws of this great state, and to carry out the oath to ‘administer justice according to the law, equally’ to everyone.”
McDermott, of West Des Moines, currently practices law with Belin McCormick, P.C. in Des Moines. He serves as President of the Board of Directors of Iowa Legal Aid and has been an active leader in numerous other community organizations. McDermott received his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and his undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa.
McDermott is the governor’s fourth appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court. He fills the vacancy that arose because of the retirement of Justice David Wiggins.