Ghassan Harb, Student Writer, The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice
I find myself deeply disappointed with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s selection for the three open positions on the Iowa Supreme Court. This past Wednesday, Branstad announced that Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager would replace the Iowa Justices ousted from office this last November. Although I do not contest the experience and competence that these new Justices will bring to the Court, I cannot help but recognize that these candidates have quite the commonality: all three are white, male and registered republicans.
I vehemently opposed the outcome of the justice retention vote last November. I thought that this event was a misguided political attack on one of Iowa’s principal democratic foundations. This is why I was truly relieved when I heard that the Judicial Nominating Commission selected Professor Onwuachi-Willig, a fellow member of the College of Law community, as one of nine final candidates for Governor Branstad to choose from for the Iowa Supreme Court. Having been a student of Professor Onwuachi-Willig in the fall, I believe that Professor Onwuachi-Willig, a remarkably distinguished and experienced legal scholar – and a woman of color – would have been an ideal addition to the Iowa Supreme Court. I knew that Professor Onwuachi-Willig would bring a unique perspective to a position that demands unique perspective. Instead it seems that Governor Branstad concluded that a Supreme Court embodying diversity in race, gender and experience were not important attributes to assist in interpreting the Iowa Constitution.
I cannot help but think that Governor Branstad’s decision was guided solely on political grounds. After all, if the people are angry, it seems logical that you must give them what they want. What is the point of ousting three justices from the Supreme Court if the persons replacing them might have similar beliefs? It seems safe to assume that three white republican men would not interpret Iowa’s Constitution to provide the right of marriage to all of Iowa’s people, as this was the catalyst behind the judicial retention vote in the first place. Whatever his reasons were, Governor Branstad’s decision has its consequences. The Iowa Supreme Court is now represented solely by white men.
I believe that an all white male Supreme Court cannot adequately represent Iowa’s interests. A Supreme Court that lacks racial and gender diversity damages the abilities of the judicial system itself. As we all learned in Constitutional Law, judicial interpretation is by no means black letter law. Different people hold different viewpoints, often shaped by their background and life experiences. Even though all justices seek to interpret the Constitution as it truly stands, diversity shapes how judicial interpretation is approached. For this reason, the Supreme Court of the United States represents several aspects of our “melting pot” society. A homogeneous Iowa Supreme Court is deprived of variation in insight and experience, healthy characteristics necessary for the role of judicial interpretation.
Furthermore, I fear that Governor Branstad’s decision has other consequences. Despite our reputation, Iowa is a state which is rich in diversity and values it. Looking around the coffee shop I am writing this post in, I see people of all colors, of all ages, and of all backgrounds. I appreciate the fact that The University of Iowa was the first public institution to admit men and women on an equal basis and was one of the first to award a law degree to a woman. The Iowa Supreme Court’s first decision in 1839, In Re the Matter of Ralph, prohibited slavery in Iowa decades before the Civil War was fought. Iowa is proud of its history of progressive tolerance and civility. Iowa consists of a highly educated populace that takes politics seriously. With Governor Branstad’s decision, Iowa’s Supreme Court fails to recognize and embrace its diversity and history of tolerance. This decision sends a negative message to the people of Iowa – that only white males are the ones who should hold such important positions of power in this state.