He has been able to enjoy that solitude only about five days a month on average since becoming chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court six years ago, however. Cady also maintains an office in the Judicial Branch Building south of the state Capitol in Des Moines, and he frequently travels the state giving speeches putting a face on the third branch of government.S
As the chief executive officer of the Iowa Judicial Branch, Cady oversees more than 1,700 employees and a court system with a budget of $180 million. That is in addition to participating in the more than 100 cases each year that come before the court and writing his share of the opinions.
Yet he clearly relishes his role as chief of the state’s court system, which incorporates two appellate courts, trial courts and clerks offices in all 99 counties. Cady has worked to bring transparency to Iowa’s courts, address disparities in the rate of imprisonment of minority offenders and provide a reliable base of state funding. And in the years he has left in that role, he hopes his work on those challenges will leave Iowa’s courts in a better position for future generations.
Cady recently sat down for a wide ranging conversation about his career, the Supreme Court and the judicial system. Following are edited excerpts of that conversation.
Q. It’s fair to say you rocketed through the judicial ranks, from the District Associate Court to the District Court to the Court of Appeals and finally to the Supreme Court. Was that by design?
A. It was in no way by design. In fact, I can remember when I was sworn in as a District Court judge feeling that if I never accomplish anything else in life, this would satisfy me. I could do this forever. And, it was really true: I loved that job. I loved working with lawyers. I loved the ups, the excitement, everything about the courtroom activity. But I think those eight years on the District Court bench really revealed to me a broader perspective of the power of our justice system. And in my work I found the most satisfaction in writing opinions and trying to express to lawyers and litigants why this is the outcome that should result. I think that’s what then made me think the appellate courts would be a nice place to be.
Q. Do you have a lighter writing load in light of your administrative duties as chief justice?
A. I don’t. Sometimes I think I should because I’m not able to get the work out as fast as the other justices. My vote in so many of these cases is so important. It has to be a full court, and I need to put every ounce of energy I have into gaining a full understanding of every case that we have.
Q. The court moved to a term system three years ago, with two months between terms exclusively devoted to administrative matters. How has that changed the court?
A. The thing that really drew me to the concept was having a beginning and an ending point. I had been on the court for almost 15 years, and you felt like you were almost always on the treadmill and you never got a moment to step away. The decision-making component is overpowering. You’re always thinking about these cases. So it’s nice to say, OK, we’re done for two months and let’s think about the vision we have for this justice system. Are we going in the direction that we need to be going? What do we see out there that needs attention? And let’s look out across the nation; are other courts doing things we should be doing? The term system has allowed us to expand justice beyond our decision-making role.
Q. Talk about the court system’s increased focus on transparency, including getting the court out of Des Moines for oral arguments in Iowa communities.
A. Our strength comes from the process of justice and the appearance that it gives people. We have to operate with the highest integrity. We make very difficult decisions that generate controversy at times. What we always have to give the people is an appreciation that the process is thoughtful, contemplative, it’s open and it’s transparent. That’s what we need to do every day, from this Court, from the District Courts, the Magistrate Courts. Whether you agree or disagree, we want the public to know that people cared about making the right decision. That’s my message to the judges when I talk to them, and the clerks when I talk to them, that the process of justice is just as important as a final decision from the justice system.
Q. How many speeches do you give a year?
A. Every week I’m out talking to some group. The times when I need to step back and give a formal address, it’s maybe every other week.
Q. That’s a big time commitment.
A. It is a big commitment.
Q. But that’s part of the job, right?
A. It is now. I think it’s really important for people to have a good understanding of our court system, because there’s so much more that we need to be doing as a justice system, and we need to be supported in that mission and we need to be funded in a way that we can better achieve that mission. So, part of my approach to this job is increasing the understanding of the court system so that there will be a greater willingness to fund it in a way that we will be able to provide justice to more and more people.
Q. When you are writing an opinion, who is your audience?
A. It changes with every case. That’s one of the first questions I ask myself, and I talk to my clerk about, is who needs to be the audience. Who do we need to touch? Sometimes, if it’s a complicated uniform commercial code question, then I know I am writing to lawyers for the most part. Sometimes I’m writing to a litigant. Sometimes I’m writing to a victim. Sometimes my primary audience is the public in general. Sometimes the audience will be those people I know are going to disagree.
Q. How important are dissents and concurrences versus the court just saying what the law is?
A. I do think the law needs to be as clear as possible. People need to be able to understand the legal principles so they can apply them in their life, just as we are applying it to the lives of the parties in the case. I think that a dissent can be a remarkable piece of journalism if it preserves a position that needs to be given some more thought as we progress as a society. It really takes a dissenter to make us think about what we are doing, because sometimes we are moving as a society into something new and better, and sometimes were are still at the edge where we’re really not certain where we are going to end up. And sometimes the dissent is ahead of the majority. They’re seeing something that the majority has not yet seen. Justice Brandeis, for instance, wrote some remarkable dissents that were 30 and 50 years ahead of his time. The Katz case is a good example where he was introducing the concept of privacy in such a different way than most of the jurists across the country were looking at. So I don’t look at dissents as viciously undermining or attacking the majority.
Q. Do dissents sharpen the thinking of the majority?
A. The great thing about an appellate court is you have numerous minds at work, and each one makes a contribution. So, dissents certainly are a part of that process that contributes to the development of our law.
Q. Does that get in the way of collegiality?
A. Well, it certainly can. I know if I write a majority opinion and I pick up a dissent that has circulated that goes after it, it doesn’t make you feel good. No one likes to be criticized. But I use it as an opportunity: OK, what more do I need to be looking at? I need to do a better job of writing my majority opinion.
Q. Does it very often happen where a dissent forces you to rework an opinion?
A. It should.
Q. Have you ever brought a dissenter along to your position by revising your draft opinion?
A. It does happen. All the writing that goes on before the final decision is filed is just astounding. I always tell my law clerks, we don’t write an opinion, we re-write it. At that point we are feeding off the thoughts of the other justices, and especially when they become expressed in a proposed dissenting opinion, or a proposed concurring opinion. And sometimes a proposed majority opinion can be rewritten to where the dissent will say, OK, you’ve accommodated me now; I see where you are coming from.
Q. So that can happen?
A. Absolutely. I can’t say how many times it does, but there are definitely times when a dissent will be eliminated by changes made to a proposed majority opinion. And there are times when a proposed dissent has flipped the court and the majority opinion is rewritten to adopt the dissent.
Q. The Iowa Supreme Court consists of seven white men. How much do you think the court and its work suffers from the lack of women and minorities?
A. Well, I’m not saying that we don’t suffer, because diversity is absolutely essential. But we try very hard to overcome our handicap. I think when you look at the people that surround us and help us do our work, there is at least a lot of gender diversity. But I think about this a lot, and I meet with people to talk about it. I meet with the deans of the two [Iowa law schools] to explore ways how they are able to achieve diversity in a much better way and how we can retain that diversity in our profession.
We have much better diversity in the Court of Appeals and District Courts. With regard to our District Court and District Associate Courts, I think statewide the gender diversity is over 30 percent. So, we are making progress. But what it means for the Supreme Court is we have to stop and try to think: OK, what are we missing? Are we looking at something that is oblivious to us? So oftentimes we will ask our clerks to read our opinions and be very honest and frank if there’s something that they see in it that we missed.
That’s something we do to overcome our handicap, but it’s very much on my mind. I don’t like the optics of our court. I just hope people can see that we work hard to do our work in a way that everyone’s perspective will be understood and that we speak in a way that is understood by everyone.
Q. Is there anything about Iowa’s system of picking judges and appeals court judges that makes that ceiling so hard to break through for women and minorities?
A. We don’t have any role in the selection of the judges. That process is done by the judicial nominating commissions. Justice Wiggins, as chair of the State Judicial Nominating Commission, is an important voice. Our state court administrator, David Boyd, is the executive secretary of all the judicial nominating commissions. We provide training to them, and we have integrated diversity training into our judicial nominating commission training. I appear at the training sessions to talk about the importance of it.
It’s not that we haven’t been more diverse in the past, but quite frankly we are one of only two state courts that are all male. I think it’s just an aberration, but I wish it weren’t one we had to deal with. It’s up to the commissions and to the governor to create the diversity on this court and on all courts across the state.
I talk to lawyer groups about the value and the opportunities that are available on the bench. I’ve talked to women lawyer groups about what they would like to see in the job of a judge that would be attractive to them, because I do have the ability to help mold the court in a different way. This is a job that was built when our society was a man’s world, so if there are things that are integrated into this job that aren’t attractive to women, then I need to remove those obstacles. My goal is to make sure this is a job that attracts diverse applicants, and if that can be done, then over time the absence of diversity, or the inequity of diversity, will be eliminated.
Q. You are eligible to retire and it will be mandatory for you in how many years?
A. Nine years.
Q. What’s your plan? How long do you want to be doing this?
A. Well, I don’t think about retirement. Sometimes I look around and see my peers not only thinking about it but doing it, and it makes me think, why am I not thinking about it? But I feel motivated. I enjoy coming to work every day even though I know there’s a lot I have to do. But I still feel like there’s more to be accomplished. I’d just like to do a little bit more. I don’t see myself as staying here till I’m 72. There are other things in life, and maybe there is that book in me I might want to spend time with. But right now I feel like we’re doing pretty good and I’d like to leave it in a little better shape than it is now and there are a few things left to be done.
Q. Give me a couple of those. What are your top priorities?
A. Well, I think there is more work we need to do with racial disparity and implicit bias. I think those problems give us opportunities to achieve a level of justice that is far beyond what we have ever done before.
I think we continue to integrate new technology.
And what I’d really like to do is take the public’s understanding and the Legislature’s understanding to a level where the funding of our court system would not have such a direct relationship with the level of revenue the state receives. There’s so much more that we could be doing that would provide a greater level of justice. I would like to see us fund our court system at a level that would not require us to be having to look at cuts from year to year, but just know that we care so much about this that it’s a priority with everyone.
Historically courts have always kind of suffered with funding, and it would be fun, and quite rewarding, to be able to find ourselves in a position where our proposals for advancing justice would be accepted because of the benefits that it will provide and not whether or not we can afford it. We’re not a branch of government that costs a lot of money to operate. We bring in about as much as we spend and we’re less than 2½ percent of our total state budget. We should be able to be funded based on the merits of the work we are doing, not the amount of revenue that comes in.
Q. That sounds like a political issue, unless there is a constitutionally protected source of revenue such as the Department of Transportation. What do you think about that?
A. I don’t want to get involved in the politics of any of this. I certainly respect the legislative branch, and the governor, and the role they have in government. But at the same time I need our work to be respected as well. There’s a great deal of frustration in operating a court system from year to year not knowing whether you are going to have to pull back on some programs that are important to people and whether you go another year without developing programs that you know are going to benefit people. So before I leave, it would be nice to be able to put us in a different position where the Judicial Branch is truly a recognized priority for Iowans.
Q. Do you have any hobbies that would shock people? Do you, for example, go down into the basement and build canoes out of wood?
A. I am a jack of all trades. I can wire electricity. I can do my own plumbing work. I remodel.
Q. That is therapeutic for you?
A. It is. I run to think and for health, not to race anyone. I run for myself. My grandfather was a carpenter – both of them were – so I have some carpentry skills and I enjoy doing things around the house. I like doing things with my hands.
Q. When you’re not reading for work, what do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
A. I’m always looking for a good book. I love history. I’m not into science fiction for some reason. If I’m in the bookstore, you generally will find me in the history section.
Mark Cady resume
Born in 1953 in Rapid City, South Dakota; spent most of his formative years in Austin, Minn., where he graduated from high school.
Attended Drake University in Des Moines for undergraduate studies in economics and political science, and graduated from Drake Law School in 1978.
Practiced law in Fort Dodge for five years, working one year as an assistant Webster County attorney.
Appointed to the District Associate Court in 1983.
Appointed to the District Court in 1986.
Appointed to the Court of Appeals in 1994.
Chosen as chief judge, Court of Appeals in 1997.
Appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1998
Chosen as chief justice in 2010.
Home in Fort Dodge since 1978.
Married to Rebecca with two children and three grandchildren.
Funding for this project provided by
Chief Justice Mark Cady
There is a small office tucked away on the fourth floor of the Webster County Courthouse in Fort Dodge where Chief Justice Mark Cady has spent the better part of the past 30 years as a judge on the Iowa District Court, the Court of Appeals and the Iowa Supreme Court.
This is what he calls his home away from home. It is a quiet place to work in the community of 28,000 where he has lived for nearly 40 years, where and he and his wife Becky raised two children, and which he cherishes for keeping him grounded in the life of Iowa outside Des Moines.