The Iowa Supreme Court: Raising The Bar For All Of Us

Thursday, June 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Chief Justice Louis A. Lavorato of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Editor: Mr. Chief Justice, would you tell our readers about your professional background and experience?

Lavorato: In 1959 I graduated with honors from Drake University in Des Moines and went on to Drake University Law School, where I graduated, in 1962, first in my class and a member of the Order of the Coif. I was also assistant editor of the Drake Law Review.

Following admission to the Iowa bar, I entered private practice in Des Moines with a law school classmate. In 1965 our partnership merged with the Des Moines firm of Williams & Hart, and that same year I was appointed counsel to the Iowa House of Representatives. I carried on as House Counsel for one session while a partner in the firm. In 1972 the firm became Williams, Hart, Lavorato & Kirtley.

My first ten years as a lawyer were devoted to general practice, with an emphasis on trial work. During the final seven years of my practice I focused primarily on civil litigation. In 1979 then Governor Robert Ray appointed me to the district court bench. In 1983 the Iowa Supreme Court appointed me Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial District, which includes 16 counties in central and south-central Iowa. I remained Chief Judge until January 1986, when then Governor Terry Branstad appointed me to the Iowa Supreme Court. In November 2000 I became Chief Justice after being elected to that position by my colleagues on the Court.

Editor: Can you share with us the factors that contributed to your decision, following a distinguished career in private practice, to go onto the bench?

Lavorato: That decision began with my parents, both of whom were Italian immigrants. My father was self-taught, and he possessed a firm belief in the value of education. All through my childhood both of my parents encouraged me to study hard. Although I was able to finance my education through the GI Bill and scholarships, my father worked at two jobs to get my sister and younger brother through college. He had a particularly high regard for the law, and I think it is no coincidence that two of his children and four of his grandchildren became lawyers. Speaking for myself, I have always been goal-oriented. At the beginning of my college career I had a single goal: to become a lawyer, then to become a successful trial lawyer and finally to become a judge. I think that the driving factor behind my desire to become a judge had to do with wanting to make a difference, and that I attribute to my upbringing.

Editor: You have been a member of the Iowa Supreme Court for 20 years and Chief Justice since 2000. What have some of the high points been over this period?

Lavorato: Taking the oath of office as a Supreme Court Justice was certainly a high point. Being a member of the Court has allowed me to help improve the administration of justice in some very significant ways. And the sense of accomplishment one achieves through these efforts is very real. For example, during the past two decades, the Iowa Judicial Branch moved from local funding to state funding. We introduced and then expanded the use of information technology by the courts. We studied racial and gender bias in the courts. Our comprehensive analysis of the future of the court system resulted in many improvements, including a substantial revamping of our appellate court structure and process. We also updated our attorney rules of ethical conduct to bring them into alignment with the ABA model rules, and we overhauled the attorney disciplinary process. More recently, we established a program to improve the quality of court interpreter services, and now we have a committee working on forms to facilitate pro se litigations.

I take particular pride in the role that the Iowa Supreme Court has taken with respect to supporting court technology. The Iowa Judicial Branch now has a number of online services, including online dockets and online payment of fines. We have been at the forefront in the development of database interfaces with state agencies and local governments, and the Iowa Supreme Court recently began streaming videos of its oral arguments. A recent newspaper account cited this technology as an example of judicial leadership "that has set national standards for court access."

In addition, let me mention as a high point during these years my participation in the construction of our new Iowa Judicial Branch building. In 1998 I was appointed co-chair of the building committee, and for the ensuing two years we worked on the design of a state-of-the-art facility. In November of 2000 we broke ground, and in April of 2003 we moved into our new quarters. The facility is something in which everyone involved - whether in its conception, planning and design, financing or construction - takes immense pride. It has also been quite well received by the public.

Editor: I am sure over this period of time there have been some challenges as well. Can you share some of the difficult moments?

Lavorato: The state financial crisis, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, was a particularly difficult challenge because Iowa's court system is almost entirely state-funded. The Supreme Court had to make some difficult decisions to help the state balance its budget, and that entailed cutting expenses to the point of laying people off, furloughing employees, and taking other steps directly affecting employees. The most difficult challenges are always those that involve people. In addition, we cut programs, closed court offices and reduced the level of judicial services around the state, actions that affected public access to the courts.

Editor: In your annual State of the Judiciary message to the Iowa General Assembly this past January, you focused on the rule of law and on judges being accountable to the Constitution and the law - not political pressure. What is the subtext here? What makes this message so timely?

Lavorato: My purpose was to try to focus attention on the value of judicial independence and the need for vigilance in safeguarding our fair and impartial courts. Journalist Theodore Olsen has written, "In this country we accept decisions of judges even when we disagree on the merits because the process itself is vastly more important than any decision. Americans understand that no system is perfect and no judge immune from error, but also that our society would crumble if we did not respect the judicial process and the judges who make it work." That summarizes a very important proposition and one that oftentimes we take for granted. Our court system is not perfect, but it is fair and impartial, and that makes it highly effective. As a consequence, it is a model for the rest of the world.

Editor: In your view, is there undue pressure on judges today to respond to special interest groups or politicians?

Lavorato: Criticism of judges and the courts is not new. What is new is the intensity of the attacks and the calculated nature of the efforts to influence our courts for political gain. I think it is essential that Americans understand that there are misguided, even dangerous, efforts underway to politicize our courts and make them the instruments of special interest groups. This is definitely not part of our history, and it is absolutely crucial to our sense of who we are as a society that it not be part of our future.

Editor: The judiciary is the most fragile of the three branches of government. What can the organized bar do to help defend the integrity of our judicial system?

Lavorato: In my view, the bar can do three things. It can educate the public about the role judges play in our government and the nature of the judicial process. Second, the bar can respond to unfair criticism of judges and the courts. Third, the bar can work to promote the merit selection of judges and remove judges from political elections. The ABA does wonderful work along these lines with its public education programs, and it has been highly effective in responding to unfair attacks against judges and the courts.

Editor: Is an event like the ABA's National Law Day relevant to this discussion?

Lavorato: National Law Day is the perfect opportunity for opening a dialogue about our judicial system. This year's theme, "Separate Branches Balanced Powers," is truly timely so far as this discussion is concerned.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts about the selection of judges? For starters, how does the process work in Iowa?

Lavorato: Four decades ago, the voters of Iowa made the wise decision to remove judges from the political process. All of our state court judges today are chosen through a merit selection process that ensures a bench composed of men and women of the utmost integrity who have been selected solely on the basis of their professional qualifications, not ideology or political orientation.

Editor: Does the Iowa Bar Association play a role in vetting judicial prospects?

Lavorato: The Iowa Bar Association does not comment on nominees, but it does play a key role during retention elections. Each election year the Association conducts a survey of its members which asks them to rate judges standing for retention based on a number of important judicial qualities, such as demeanor, legal knowledge and skills, and timeliness of rulings. The results of the survey are released to the public before the election.

Editor: You are also on record with respect to making the courts more accessible to the public. Is there a problem in this regard?

Lavorato: Equal access to justice is an essential element of our fair and impartial courts. The definition of access is changing, however, as our society changes, and it is essential that the courts respond to changing demands. Today, access to justice means things that were not thought of in the past, including online access to court services and the provision of interpreters to litigants. On the latter, we have adopted a code of ethics for interpreters and created a statewide roster of approved interpreters. These are small changes, but they contribute to the quality of service that we are able to offer our people.

Editor: Today we are more a nation of immigrants than we have been in nearly a century. How do we go about ensuring that the newest arrivals to our shores understand the rule of law, the impartiality and independence of our judiciary and the other values that underlie our freedom under law?

Lavorato: Outreach and education are essential in teaching and fostering appreciation for the rule of law. I think that most of the new arrivals wish to develop a sense of pride and a sense of ownership with respect to our society and its government. With the right outreach, we can help them achieve these goals. My own background would indicate that we have a gift for this kind of thing.

Editor: I understand that you will be retiring in September. As you hand over to a new Chief Justice, what would you like your principal legacy to Iowa and its court system to be?

Lavorato: I would like to be remembered as an advocate for equal justice for everyone, for a fair and impartial court system, and for the rule of law. I would also like to be remembered as someone who worked to improve access to the court system.