Iowa Governor Names First Minority to High Court

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Iowa Supreme Court, which had been criticized for being all-male and all-white, will now have its first justice who represents a minority group.

The Iowa Supreme Court building in Des Moines. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Christopher McDonald, an Asian-American who currently serves as a judge on the Iowa Court of Appeals, was appointed to the state high court Wednesday morning by Governor Kim Reynolds.

McDonald will join Justice Susan Christensen, who was appointed last August by Reynolds, becoming the only female justice currently on the seven-member court and only the third woman to serve on the court in its history.

McDonald, 44, of Des Moines, is the son of a Vietnamese mother and Scotch-Irish father. He was born in Bangkok, Thailand, during the Vietnam War, and lived on military bases around the world.

In addition to his ethnic roots, he has an interesting hard-scrabble life story to tell. McDonald’s mother and father separated when he was young, and he was raised by his mother on the south side of Des Moines, working outside the home beginning at age 14 to help support his mother and brother.

Later, while in college, he worked full time as a file clerk in the basement of the Polk County Courthouse supporting his own young family while taking a full load classes at night. On weekends, he worked as a hotel janitor and cook/bartender to save money for law school.

After law school at the University of Iowa and a varied legal career that included clerking for Eighth Circuit Judge David Hansen, practicing law at the Faegre Baker Daniels and Belin McCormick law firms in Des Moines, and a stint as corporate counsel for an insurance company, McDonald’s career came full circle.

“In 2012, Judge McDonald returned to the Polk County Courthouse, this time with a robe, when [former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad] appointed him as a district court judge,” Governor Reynolds said Wednesday at a news conference announcing the appointment.

After just over one year on the district court bench, McDonald was appointed in 2013 to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

At Wednesday’s news conference, McDonald departed from remarks thanking those who helped him get to this point in his career, and he offered a comment about the perspective he brings to the court.

“I know that as the first minority, or person of color, appointed to the Supreme Court, people will have special expectations for me in terms of leadership and mentorship,” he said. “And, I understand that, I appreciate that. I embrace those expectations, and I will certainly do my best to meet and exceed them.”

Under Iowa’s judicial selection process, the governor appoints trial and appellate judges from of a list of nominees screened by nominating commissions made up of citizens appointed by the governor and lawyers elected by other Iowa lawyers.

McDonald replaces Justice Daryl Hecht, who retired last year for health reasons as he battles melanoma.

When Justice Christensen was appointed to replace Bruce Zager, who retired in 2018, the court previously had only two female justices, neither of whom was serving on the court at the time of her appointment.

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