Early Civil Rights Cases
Like the courts of today, the early Iowa courts were sometimes called upon to decide cases that involved volatile social or political controversies of the time. For example, from 1839 to 1873, the Iowa Supreme Court decided three civil rights cases—one involving the question of slavery, another about segregated education, and a third case about equal rights to public accommodations. These decisions demonstrate legal foresight as well as a deep and abiding respect for the values enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The first of these cases was the very first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court—In Re the Matter of Ralph, decided July, 1839. In 1834, a Missouri resident named Montgomery entered into a written agreement with his slave Ralph. The agreement allowed Ralph to reside in the Iowa territory to earn money to purchase his freedom for $550 plus interest. Ralph went to Dubuque where he found a job working in the lead mines. Ralph failed to pay this amount and after five years had passed Montgomery sent bounty hunters to abduct Ralph and return him to Missouri. Ralph was brought before the district court by a writ of habeas corpus, and the proceedings were transferred to the Iowa Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
The Iowa Supreme Court found that Ralph should pay his debt, but held that "no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery." The court rejected the argument that Ralph was a fugitive slave, reasoning that by allowing him to leave Missouri and reside in a free state, Montgomery could no longer exercise any right over him in the Iowa territory. The U.S. Supreme Court faced a similar question 18 years later when it decided the infamous Dred Scott (1857) case. However, unlike the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling in Ralph, the U.S. Supreme Court decision maintained the rights of the slave holder and ordered the slave returned. The issue of slavery would not be settled until the Civil War.
In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court decided the landmark Clark v. The Board of Directors. The case involved a 12-year-old girl who had been denied admission to her neighborhood school because of her race. The court held that segregated schools were inherently unequal when it stated that "the law makes no distinction as to the right of children … to attend the common schools." To do otherwise, the court held, would violate the spirit of our laws and perpetuate racial strife. It took 85 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against segregated schools-- which it did in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
In 1873, the court heard Coger v. The North Western Union Packet Co. This case centered on a woman who, because of her African descent, was forcibly removed from the dining car of the steamboat on which she was traveling. The woman had an unrestricted meal ticket. The Iowa Supreme Court held that the woman was entitled to the same rights and privileges as white passengers. The same conclusion was not reached by the U.S. Supreme Court until Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964), a case that upheld the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Nation's First Woman Lawyer
The supreme court's fundamental concern for equal treatment for all reached beyond case law into other aspects of the court's authority, including its authority to admit lawyers to the practice of law in Iowa. In 1869, the court ruled that women may not be denied the right to practice law in Iowa and admitted Arabella A. Mansfield. Ms. Mansfield was the first woman admitted to the practice of law in any state in the nation.