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In Memoriam Justice Snell

Justice Bruce Snell Jr.

headshot of justice bruce snellThe Iowa Judicial Branch is saddened to report Former Justice Bruce Snell Jr. passed away on Friday, December 20, 2019. He served on the Iowa Supreme Court from 1987 until his retirement in 2001.

A native of Ida Grove, Iowa, he received his bachelor's degree from Grinnell College in 1951. After college, he served in the United States Army. In 1956, Justice Snell graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law. Justice Snell served as a law clerk to Judge Henry N. Graven, United States District Judge for Northern Iowa. Later, he practiced law in New York City. He returned to Iowa and served as assistant Iowa Attorney General, practiced law in Ida Grove and was appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals in 1976 where he served until his appointment to the Supreme Court.

Funeral services for Justice Snell are pending in Ida Grove, planned for a time following Christmas.

Statements from the Supreme Court Regarding the Death of Justice Bruce Snell Jr.

Justice Snell was a true gentleman to everyone he met and to all of us who served with him and argued in front of him. He was also a committed public servant, serving in the military, serving in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, earning citizen of the year recognition in his home town of Ida Grove, and serving on the court of appeals for 11 years and the supreme court for another 14. More importantly, though, he was a very kind man, renowned as a fair and impartial justice and for his scholarly research and legal analysis. When he was on the bench, Justice Snell was committed to ensuring justice for every person appearing in court. When he was off the bench discussing cases with the court, he was friendly and listened intently to differing ideas. I did not join the court until after Justice Snell retired, but was fortunate to serve with him while he was a senior judge and remember many pleasant conversations with him and his wife, Anne. My thoughts go out to his family who I am sure miss him greatly. Bruce and Anne will also be missed by all of us on the court, the entire legal community, and the people of Ida Grove. 

Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins

Bruce Snell was a warm, outgoing, and positive personality reflecting his deep Iowa roots. He attended public school in Iowa. He earned his undergraduate degree from Grinnell College. He received his law degree from the University of Iowa Law School, where he made lifelong friends including his future colleague and Chief Justice Art McGiverin. Throughout his life, Bruce had an attitude of gratitude for receiving an excellent education.

Although Bruce was born in Iowa, he was also an Iowan by choice. After graduation and a judicial clerkship, Bruce practiced law briefly in New York as a corporate lawyer, but decided to return to Iowa for life style reasons, a decision he never regretted. In Iowa, he served in many capacities, including as an assistant attorney general, a private lawyer and community leader, and as a judge. Bruce often said he lived a fortunate life in Iowa, but it is we who were fortunate to have this dignified, caring, courteous, and perceptive individual among us. His life was not one of accumulating wealth, but of service.

Bruce strongly identified with the judicial branch and the judges and staff that worked for it. Bruce's father served on the Iowa Supreme Court before him, and both he and Bruce served with distinction on the bench right up to the last day when mandatory retirement took its uncompromising effect. Upon mandatory retirement, Bruce then elected to continue to serve as a senior judge. When new members of the judiciary and new staff came aboard during and after his years of active service, Bruce warmly welcomed them to the judicial enterprise.

Bruce will be missed by the Ida Grove community and the Iowa Judicial Branch. He will be missed most of all, however, by his children, Rebecca and Brad, and the rest of his friends and family. To them, we extend our heartfelt condolences. May this fine gentleman rest in peace and be an inspiration to future generations.

Justice Brent Appel

Short of stature but long in wisdom and charm, Justice Snell was one of my favorite ex-justices to encounter at public events.  Although I missed the opportunity to work directly with Justice Snell, appellate judges on a court “serve together” across the years by drawing on each other’s work.  I have enjoyed reading and studying many of Justice Snell’s opinions, including a number of his criminal law dissents.  Justice Snell didn’t like it when he believed a criminal statute was being stretched to reach a particular result.  Justice Snell was a strong defender of the concept that criminal laws must provide fair notice—well before that notion became fashionable the way it is today.  I will miss Justice Snell, but all of us will continue to draw on his ideas and example.

Justice Edward Mansfield

Justice Snell retired from the Iowa Supreme Court nearly 20 years ago.  Throughout retirement, he remained committed to our judiciary and actively involved in as many activities as health would allow.  He loved to chat on the phone and was always up to speed with what was happening in our state as well as our judicial branch.  After my appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court, I received a handwritten letter from Justice Snell.  Along with warm salutations and a heartfelt reminder that he still misses being on the court, Justice Snell wrote that he was often asked how he gets along with women on the appellate bench.  His reply was, “Just fine!  When she is wrong, I dissent.  When I’m wrong, she dissents.”  Although I haven’t seen Becky or Brad for many, many years, my heart goes out to them at this time of loss.  Our fathers were very good friends with each other, and I feel a natural closeness with them as a result.  I will miss my telephone conversations with Justice Snell and his contagious outlook on life but find comfort when I read one of his many opinions.

Justice Susan Larson Christensen

Bruce Snell was one of the most good natured persons I have ever known.  He epitomized collegiality and set an example for all of us by never letting disagreements in the conference room diminish the genuine affection he felt for the other members of the court.  He was kind to all, compassionate, and filled with an unparalleled optimism.  Bruce and his late wife, Anne, lived life to the fullest.  Their joy was infectious.  I will miss Bruce's annual Christmas cards which always reflected his good cheer and positivity.  I feel fortunate to have served with such a warmhearted soul on the Supreme Court.

Marsha Ternus, Chief Justice (Ret.), Iowa Supreme Court (1993-2010)

I remember Justice Snell as one of the five pioneer members of our court of appeals. I was on the supreme court when the court of appeals was created. Bruce and the other initial court members not only made that court work. They brought honor to the court and fulfilled the mission for which it was created. The two courts worked operatively toward their common goal and set the pattern that continues. Bruce was a good friend and a solid hardworking judge.

Mark McCormick, Justice (Ret.) Iowa Supreme Court (1972-1986)

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