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Iowa Courts History

Territorial Courts  

Iowa's court system began more than 185 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.

Congress 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 

The 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.


Picture of Justice Charles Mason

Charles 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. 



Picture of Justice Joseph WilliamsThe 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. 



Picture of Justice Thomas WilsonThomas 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.



In 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. 


Iowa 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.    

During 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. 

The 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. 

Merit Selection and Retention Elections

In 1962, the people of Iowa approved a constitutional amendment that established a merit selection system for the selection of all appellate and district court judges. The goal of merit selection is to promote professional qualifications and remove judicial selection from partisan politics. Nominees for judgeships are selected by nominating commissions. The governor then makes the appointment from the slate of nominees. One year after appointment and again at the end of their term of office, judges and justices stand for retention in office at the general election. Citizens have the opportunity to vote whether or not a judge is retained. 

In 1972, eighteen judicial districts were consolidated into eight judicial districts. A chief judge was appointed to each district for a two-year term. Together, the eight chief judges and the chief justice of the supreme court make up the judicial council, which advises the supreme court on court administration. 

Unified Trial Court Act  

The passage of the Unified Trial Court Act of 1973 reformed the state court system by establishing a unified trial court known as the "Iowa District Court". This legislation abolished over 500 justice-of-the-peace courts, 899 mayor's courts, 14 municipal courts, and 34 police courts. The Act established the positions of judicial magistrates and district associate judges. The Act also established simplified, cost-effective methods of handling minor civil and criminal cases.

Appellate Court Restructuring 

Iowa's two appellate courts, the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals, were recently reorganized according to the Appellate Restructuring Plan approved by the legislature in 1998. The restructuring had two parts: the Iowa Court of Appeals was increased from six members to nine members in 1999 and the number of justices on the Iowa Supreme Court was reduced from nine to seven by attrition between 1999 and 2000. In January 2000, the Iowa Supreme Court began hearing cases en banc.  

From its inception as a small territorial court to its present day advanced statewide organization, Iowa's Judicial Branch is a venerable institution that has continually adapted to best serve the people of Iowa.  Iowans can look back on this history with pride and look forward with confidence that their judicial system will, with the tools of the future, continue to administer justice consistent with the traditions of the past. 

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