The Vanguard of Equality: The Iowa Supreme Court's Journey to Stay Ahead of the Curve on an Arc Bending towards Justice
Cady, Mark S., Albany Law Review
Dr. Martin Luther King insightfully and eloquently declared that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." (1) Our forty-fourth President has added an important understanding to this enduring declaration that the arc "doesn't bend on its own." (2) Both precepts apply equally to the parallel arc of the legal universe. Justice is not a destination. Instead, it follows a long interminable arc bent toward a more complete meaning for justice by the foresight, courage, and will of people, legislatures, and courts, all as contemplated and expected by our nation's Constitution and, more particularly, by those of the states.
As history has shown, the U.S. Supreme Court's consideration of civil rights questions of critical significance has too often yielded calculations that placed people behind the vertex on the parabola of justice. (3) This result is why the several states, including my own state of Iowa, occupy a critical position in the history and future of civil rights. (4) In the nascence of our republic, the framers of the Federal Constitution viewed the states as the primary protectors of fundamental rights, such as equal protection under the law. (5) As we continue to march into the twenty-first century, this approach must continue.
Many early constitutional battles--the nullification crisis, for example (6)--were fought over the states' asserted sovereignty, which was often a proxy fight for the perseverance of slavery. (7) And, so, the Civil War Amendments federalized important civil rights: prohibiting slavery; (8) guaranteeing citizenship, equal protection, and due process of law; (9) and protecting the right to vote. (10) Undoubtedly, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been pivotal to the protection of civil rights and civil liberties; over the last century, the Supreme Court used it to incorporate most of the Bill of Rights against the states. (11)
But, the Federal Constitution merely sets a "constitutional floor" below which state constitutional interpretations may not sink. (12) The states never surrendered the power to play an independent role in guaranteeing a greater measure of equality and liberty for their citizens. (13) From a constitutional standpoint, it is a well-settled precept that states enjoy considerable freedom to depart from federal interpretations of analogous--even identically worded--federal constitutional provisions. (14) Our own opinions have not only extolled the virtues of relying on independent state constitutional grounds, but have consistently utilized this vehicle on our journey for equal justice. (15)
Mere observation of a state court's freedom to interpret its constitution independently is meaningless if unaccompanied by action. Such constitutional tokenism not only renders a venerated authority feckless, it shirks a responsibility of the utmost gravity--a responsibility that should be jealously guarded and employed with reverent, faithful allegiance to the principles of equality and liberty. This responsibility is a key source of Iowa's proud civil rights heritage and vigorous approach to ensuring that all of our citizens enjoy equal protection under the law. (16) No court is inerrant. Our court, like all others, has published pages that future generations would revise with disdain. However, by persistently seeking to demonstrate the circumspection and courageousness necessary to protect the civil liberties of all Iowans, our court has consistently placed Iowans well ahead of the curve on an arc bending towards justice.
On July 4, 1839, some seven years prior to achieving statehood, Iowa began its legal history with a decision that would stand as a groundbreaking testament to equality, liberty, and uniformity of law--civil rights principles that would become the bedrock upon which our jurisprudence would stand. (17) In re Ralph, the first published opinion of the Supreme Court of Iowa, presented the case of a black man from Missouri who had been permitted to come to Iowa to work in order to purchase his freedom. …