How the Iowa Supreme Court Works
The Iowa Supreme Court is Iowa’s highest court. The Iowa Supreme Court is the final authority on interpretations of Iowa law, including Iowa statutes, the common law, and the Iowa Constitution.
I. Cases Decided by the Iowa Supreme Court.
The Iowa Supreme Court decides approximately 105 cases per year with formal, published opinions. These cases generally fall into three categories. First, approximately 45 appeals per year are retained by the Supreme Court without being transferred to the Iowa Court of Appeals. These are the cases initially believed to have the greatest public importance and to be of the most significance to Iowans.
Additionally, the Iowa Supreme Court grants “further review” each year on approximately 45 decisions of the Iowa Court of Appeals. The Iowa Court of Appeals decides a large volume of appeals – approximately 1,200 per year. After the Court of Appeals rules, either party may ask the Iowa Supreme Court to hear the case – a process known as “further review.” Further review is sought in approximately 450 out of the 1,200 cases a year. Thus, the Iowa Supreme Court historically grants about 10 percent (45 out of 450) of all requests for further review. Again, these are usually cases raising matters of general public importance.
Also, the Iowa Supreme Court has final regulatory authority over Iowa attorneys. As part of these responsibilities, the Supreme Court reviews and publishes approximately 15 opinions a year relating to the discipline of Iowa attorneys – presenting issues such as whether an attorney’s license should be suspended or revoked.
The sum of these three categories – 45 retained cases, 45 further review cases, and 15 attorney disciplinary proceedings – results in the approximately 105 published opinions that are released annually.
To decide each of these cases, the 7 justices of the Supreme Court read and study written briefs prepared by the parties, review the records, and in most instances hear oral arguments from the parties. Following oral arguments, the justices discuss the case among themselves and one of them undertakes to write a proposed opinion based on the discussion. The proposed opinion is then circulated among all the justices for comments, suggestions, and further discussion. A justice who disagrees with the proposed opinion may write a proposed dissent. When all writing and editing is finally complete, the opinion is released to the parties and the public.
The Iowa Supreme Court has an adjudicative term from September 1 to June 30. During that time, the court focuses on hearing, researching, and deciding the cases that will be resolved with full published opinions.
II. Other Case-Related Responsibilities
In addition to deciding about 105 cases per year with full published opinions, the Iowa Supreme Court has other case-related duties. One of those responsibilities is to review the approximately 450 applications for further review noted above. Each application, and the relevant Court of Appeals decision, are reviewed and voted on by each Justice. It takes 4 votes (out of 7) for an application for further review to be granted by the court.
The Iowa Supreme Court also must decide most motions that are filed in Iowa appeals, even when the case itself is ultimately decided by the Iowa Court of Appeals. This is because under Iowa law, all appeals are initially routed to the Iowa Supreme Court. No decision is made on transferring the case to the court of appeals until briefing is complete. The Iowa Supreme Court decides approximately 3, 800 motions per year. These may involve relatively routine matters, such as requests for extensions, or more complicated matters such as whether to grant an interlocutory appeal before the trial court has reached a final decision or whether to stay a trial court decision.
III. Other Duties of the Iowa Supreme Court
Because of its supervisory role in the judicial branch of government, the Iowa Supreme Court also is involved in matters besides appeals. The court is responsible for these matters year-round, but gives particular attention to them during its annual administrative term between July 1 and August 31.
The court prepares rules and amendments to rules. These rules govern such matters as civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, small claims, appellate procedure, probate procedure, juvenile procedure, child support, electronic filing, judicial administration, media coverage, professional conduct, attorney discipline, client security, continuing legal education, and judicial conduct. In recent years, most of these rules have undergone substantial amendment.
Additionally, the 7 members of the court function as a sort of board of directors for the judicial branch and its 2,000 employees. In that context, the court engages in planning for the judicial branch, decides and approves how funds appropriated by the legislature are spent, and must determine how the judicial branch is to be organized and operated. The court meets in regular administrative conferences to assist in the performance of these tasks.
The court also reviews and approves any proposed settlements of attorney disciplinary matters and reviews and approves any fees or assessments to be imposed on attorneys in connection with the practice of law.