On Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the appointment of Judge Susan Christensen of Harlan to the Iowa Supreme Court. In her brief remarks introducing Christensen during a press event Wednesday afternoon, Reynolds presented Christensen as an outsider who will bring to the court a point of view not found in the state’s elite legal circles. Neither Reynolds nor Christensen mentioned that the new justice’s father, Jerry Larson, was the longest serving justice in Iowa Supreme Court history.
Larson, who died in April, served on the court from 1978 to 2008.
“Judge Christensen didn’t take a typical path to where she is today,” Reynolds said. “She attended law school later than most, working for years as a legal secretary to support her family and her schooling. And she understands the values of everyday Iowans.”
The governor added, “She’s a mother of five and a grandmother of four, and she hails from Harlan, in rural southwest Iowa, and will be the only justice to work outside one of our metro areas.”
In her application to serve on the court, Christensen wrote, “I believe it is also of utmost importance for [justices] to be well rounded and possess experience and wisdom in other areas of life. This is where I stand out as a candidate.”
Christensen graduated cum laude from the Creighton University School of Law in 1991. Creighton is private school located in Omaha, and is “rooted in the Jesuit Catholic tradition,” according to its website.
Christensen was in private practice from 1991 to 2007, specializing in family law. During that time, she also served as assistant county attorney for both Shelby and Harrison counties, and in 2007 handled juvenile cases in Crawford County as an assistant county attorney.
In October 2007, Christensen was appointed as a district associate judge in the Fourth Judicial District, which covers nine counties in southwestern Iowa. She was appointed as a district court judge in the same distict in November 2015. Christensen’s brother, Jeff Larson, has been a judge in that district since 2003, and was made its chief judge in 2010.
Christensen’s other brother, David, is an attorney in private practice in Pottawattamie County.
Although she stressed in her application the role of family in her life, Christensen did not mention her family’s impressive record of legal service in the state. Instead she focused on her identity as a wife, who supported her husband as he was studying to become an optometrist, and as a mother, one of whose children has special needs.
“Without a doubt, having a handicapped child has had the most profound effect on our lifes [sic]…. 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,” Christensen wrote. Her son Nicholas has cerebral palsy.
As the federal judiciary moves further to the right due to President Trump’s judicial appointments, and the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts continues to roll back decades of legal precedents regarding individual rights, the role played by the Iowa Supreme Court has become more important. The court has repeatedly found the Iowa Constitution offers broader protections of the rights of citizens than federal law does.
In June, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion the Iowa legislature passed in 2017. That same month, the court found the Iowa Constitution offered broader protection against some types of warrantless searches than the U.S. Constitution.
On Wednesday, both Reynolds and Christensen noted the importance of appointing a woman to serve as justice. It’s been almost a decade since a woman has served on the court, and only two justices have been female in the entire history of the court. All three of the final candidates selected by the state’s Judicial Nominating Committee as a potential replacement for retiring Justice Bruce Zager were women.
In Iowa, the governor has the sole authority to appoint judges. After serving for a full year, every judge faces a retention election.
Christensen will be sworn in on Sept. 4. Her retention election will be in 2020.