DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds on Wednesday announced the appointment of Susan Christensen to the state’s highest court, adding a woman to the otherwise all-male bench, which has been a source of criticism since the last female justice left eight years ago.
Christensen, 56, of Harlan, Iowa, is a district court judge in the Fourth Judicial District in southwest Iowa. She will replace Justice Bruce Zager, who is retiring in September after serving seven years on the court and 12 years before that as a district judge.
Governor Reynolds said at Wednesday’s news conference that Christensen “didn’t take a typical path to where she is today.”
“She attended law school later than most, working for years as a legal secretary to support her family and pay for her schooling,” Reynolds said. “She understands the challenges of everyday Iowans. She’s a mother of five and a grandmother of four. She hails from Harlan in rural southwest Iowa and will be the only justice to work outside one of our metro areas. And with her appointment, there will once again be a woman’s voice on the Iowa Supreme Court.”
Christensen said she was “honored and humbled to be appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court by Iowa’s first female governor,” referring to Reynolds, who served as lieutenant governor under former Governor Terry Branstad, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to China last year.
Under the merit selection system outlined in the Iowa Constitution, state supreme court justices are selected by the governor from a list of three finalists chosen by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. Eight of the 17 commissioners are citizens appointed by the governor and eight are Iowa lawyers elected by licensed attorneys. The commission is chaired by the senior-most justice of the Iowa Supreme Court other than the chief justice.
Iowa Supreme Court justices serve eight-year terms and then stand for retention in a general election.
Only two other women have served on the Iowa Supreme Court.
Linda Neuman was the first female member of the bench. She was appointed in 1986 and served until her retirement in 2003.
Former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, who served from 1993 until 2010, was the first woman to hold the position of chief justice. Ternus, along with two other justices, was removed by Iowa voters in a 2010 retention election following the court’s controversial 2009 decision in Varnum v. Brien, which recognized the legality of same-sex marriage in the Hawkeye State.
Criticism of the lack of diversity on the court has not escaped its members. In a 2016 interview published by the Iowa State Bar Association, Chief Justice Mark Cady admitted the lack of women and minorities on the state’s high court was a handicap.
“I don’t like the optics of our court,” he said. “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.”
Christensen, a 1991 graduate of Creighton Law School in Omaha, is married with five children and four grandchildren. She worked in private practice and served as an assistant county prosecutor before being appointed to the district court in 2007, first as a district associate judge and then a district judge.
After thanking her family for their support Wednesday, Christensen said she looks forward to working with “my soon-to-be colleagues” on the Iowa Supreme Court “and dusting off the ladies’ room.”