court system began nearly 170 years ago.
At the time, Iowa was a sparsely settled wilderness with most of its
people living along the Mississippi River Valley. Our court system was simple, consisting of a few justices-of-the-peace
and three judges who presided over both trials and appeals.
enacted legislation on June 12, 1838, that formed the Territorial Government of
Iowa, dividing it from the Territory of Wisconsin. Among other things, the Act established a supreme court, probate
courts, district courts, and justices of the peace. Congress vested the
territorial courts with the same jurisdiction in all cases under the
Constitution and laws of the United States as exercised by federal courts.
Iowa's First Judges
first Iowa Supreme Court consisted of a chief justice and two associate
justices who served four-year terms and were appointed by the President of the
United States, who was at the time, President Martin Van Buren. The justices also served as district judges,
each serving one of the territories three judicial districts.
Mason served as the first Chief Justice from 1838 until he resigned in June
1847. Born in 1804 in the State of New York, Mason graduated from West Point
Military Academy in 1829 and remained there to teach, until he was admitted to
the New York bar. Justice Mason died in Burlington, February 22, 1882.
Chief Justice Charles
first two associate justices were Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson.
Williams was born in 1801 in Pennsylvania, studied law in the office of Chauncy
Forward, and was eventually admitted to the Pennsylvania bar. During his long
career as a judge, he presided over courts in Iowa, Kansas, and Tennessee.
Justice Williams died at Fort Scott, Kansas in 1870.
Justice Joseph Williams
S. Wilson was born in Ohio in 1813 and studied at Jefferson College in
Pennsylvania. Later in his career, he campaigned to be the first United States
Senator from Iowa, but missed election by just one vote. Justice Wilson died in
Dubuque in 1894.
Justice Thomas S. Wilson
1839, during its first sessions, the Iowa Supreme Court published ten cases. Notably, its first decision, In the Matter of Ralph, which is discussed in more detail later in this article, involved
the question of slavery. The remaining
cases, however, are much less memorable.
These cases involved a variety of contract disputes and the court's
rulings were primarily confined to questions of procedure.
joined the Union as the twenty-ninth state in 1846. The Iowa Constitution of
1846 divided the powers of the government into three separate
"departments" —the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.
Supreme court justices were elected to six-year terms by a joint vote of both
houses of the general assembly and had supervisory control over all lower
tribunals in the state.
the fist legislative session, the General Assembly divided the state into four
judicial districts. The legislature also
provided for district judges to be popularly elected for five year terms.
Iowa Constitution of 1857 endures to the present day. Consistent with the previous constitution, it vested judicial
power in the supreme court, district courts, and such lower courts as
established by the general assembly. Because the state had grown and more counties were settled, the constitution
increased the number of judicial districts from four to eleven. The constitution allowed the general assembly
to reorganize districts after 1860 and every four years thereafter. The new constitution provided for a
three-member supreme court elected at-large by the people of Iowa for staggered
terms of six years. Trial judges continued to be elected by the people.