Mark Cady, Iowa State Supreme Court chief justice, spoke at Iowa Central Community College Thursday about equality and the court's role in society.
"I think sometimes, in all aspects of life, we tend to focus on smaller events, the things that happen from day to day, and in doing that we tend to not always see the larger picture, what's really guiding us as we move forward as a society" Cady said. "The same is true when it comes to our court systems."
Cady said decisions should not be based on impulsive reactions.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Mark Cady, chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, speaks to students at Iowa Central Community College Thursday.
"We need to stop and resist that temptation to judge based upon what's happening today or yesterday, or what will happen tomorrow, not only with our courts, but with all aspects of our government," he said. "What we have created, this constitutional democracy ... is indeed a genius idea."
Cady and other justices of Iowa's high court visited area schools to discuss their roles. Justice David Wiggins spoke at Fort Dodge Senior High, Justice Thomas Waterman visited St. Edmond High School, and Justice Bruce Zager spoke to students at Webster City High School.
Cady said society in the United States is governed by the Constitution, and the court's purpose is to maintain and secure its principles.
"That is what we have been doing as a country for 230 years and as a state for 170 years," he said. "I would submit that our greatest moments as a country and greatest acclimations as a state have come about because we have this process."
More than its words, courts uphold the Constitution's principles of equality as society becomes more knowledgeable about its members, Cady said. He cited Thomas Jefferson as making an early mistake in language.
"It was 1776 when he penned those words, all men are created equal," Cady said. "He didn't get it quite right, because we know today ... it's not all men, it's all people. But the concept of equality was within us when we became a country. We just didn't know what it quite meant."
Iowa, Cady said, has a proud history of equality.
"Our equal protection clause is much more specific than the United States Constitution, and it says this: the general assembly, which is our Legislature, shall pass no law granting rights or privileges to one citizen or a group of citizens that does not apply to all citizens," Cady said. "That's pretty forceful language, and that defines clearly what we mean about equal protection."
Sometimes the courts can make mistakes, Cady said. He cited the 1910 case of a female pharmacist in Mason City who challenged a law prohibiting women from selling alcohol or products containing alcohol.
"She thought that violated our equal protection clause," he said. "She took her case to the Iowa Supreme Court, and in 1910 our court said, no, that was not discrimination. The law stood, because, our court said, 'There are simply some things in life that we all know are better done by men than women.'"
The law was upheld, Cady said, because the court and most of the state agreed with it.
"We got that wrong, didn't we?" he said. "But why did we get it wrong? Our court at that moment failed to capture what was beginning to emerge as the undeniable truth that we know today, that women are equally capable of doing the same as men."
Though speaking about equality, Cady did not refer directly to same-sex marriage or the April 2010 Supreme Court decision striking down language defining marriage as being between a man and a woman until 70 minutes into his presentation, when asked about the campaign to not retain the court's justices.
Justices Marsha Turnus, Michael Streit and David Baker were removed from office that year.
"That caused a lot of backlash," he said. "There was a public campaign to remove those three judges, and that was successful. Never in the history of our state has a Supreme Court justice been removed from office, and it seemed to be all focused on the efforts of various groups that were very much against same-sex marriage."
Cady said by the time Justice David Wiggins was on the ballot in 2012, there had been a shift in public perception regarding same-sex marriage. Wiggins was retained.
"When I talk about us being more contemplative and looking at things over a longer period of time, I think that allows us to avoid responding with a knee-jerk reaction over some of these things," Cady said. "I'll let history at some point judge what happened in 2010."