The chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court this morning offered a strong public defense of the state’s court system in the wake of criticism over the court’s 2009 gay marriage ruling. 

“Unlike our political institutions, courts serve the law,” Chief Justice Mark Cady said his morning at the statehouse. “They serve the law, not the interests of constituents, not the demands of special interest groups and not the electorate’s reaction to a particular court decision.”

The chief justice this morning delivered the annual “Condition of the Judiciary” message to legislators — some of whom are pushing to impeach Cady and the three other justices who remain on the state’s highest court.  Cady’s core message:  the state’s court system is a “model of good government” that is misunderstood and under attack.  

“I feel compelled to address this challenge to you this morning, or at least some aspects of it, because it threatens to undermine the checks and balances that protect the constitutional rights of all Iowans,” Cady said.

Cady is the author of the gay marriage ruling.  Listen to his 50-minute speech: MarkCady

Cady closed his speech today by addressing complaints that the tone of politics contributed to the shooting of a federal judge and others in Arizona. “Let us go forward with greater openness, not only in the way that we all do our work, but in what we know and what we understand today about each other and the world around us,” Cady said. “And let us, too, go forward with a new understand that that rhetoric does have meaning and rhetoric must be responsible.”

State Senator Kent Sorenson, a Republican from Indianola, is among Cady’s critics. “He threw a match on the tinder box, in my opinion,” Sorenson said after the speech.  “…I think he made a foolish mistake by addressing this issue in front of the chamber and I wouldn’t have done it if I was him.”

Three rookie Republicans in the Iowa House who are drafting articles of impeachment refused to comment after the speech. Sorenson suggests impeachment is more rather than less likely after Cady’s remarks this morning.

“I would have let sleeping dogs lie,” Sorenson said. “But obviously he wanted to throw it out there for everybody and I think he made a grave mistake.”

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal wore a sticker that said, “Support our Courts” during the address. “I thought it was a great speech,” Gronstal said. “I thought it was something that corrected some of the misperceptions amongst the public about the role of the courts and what their job is.” 

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a Republican from Hiawatha who is an attorney, isn’t sure what impact Cady’s speech may have on the move to impeach Cady and the other justices.

“I thought his speech was thoughtful.  I thought it was good,” Paulsen told reporters immediately after Cady’s address. “He stood up for his branch of government. That’s his job.” 

Two former lieutenant governors who were involved in the unsuccessful effort to retain the three Supreme Court justices who were voted off the bench last year attended today’s speech.  Republican Joy Corning served two terms as Terry Branstad’s lieutenant governor.”I think there’s going to be conversation in (the House) about impeachment,” Corning told reporters. “But I do not think it will go any place.” 

Democrat Sally Pederson served two terms as Tom Vilsack’s lieutenant governor. “My own point of view is that talk of impeachment is recklessand really very detrimental to the work of the legislature,” Pederson told reporters. 

Over half of Cady’s speech was spent focused on the gay marriage ruling and related issues.  He began his speech with a budget pitch to lawmakers.  “Our job will be done regardless of the cards we are dealt,” Cady said. But Cady warned the “grim reality” is it will be “harder and harder” for the court to meet its mission with a limited budget.

Cady outlined steps the courts have taken to digitize records and streamline proceedures, but he warned those aren’t the fix for budget woes.  The court’s workload has increased during the recession, with a 17% increase in foreclosures and a 15% increase in debt collection cases.

(This post was updated at 12:40 p.m.)