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Hundreds Gather In Des Moines To Remember Iowa Chief Justice

cady memorial service
Katarina Sostaric
Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht speaks at a memorial service for Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady in Des Moines on Wednesday.

Hundreds of Iowans gathered at Drake University in Des Moines Wednesday to remember the life of Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, who died of a heart attack Friday night at the age of 66.

Four speakers, friends and colleagues of Cady, described a kind, compassionate man who dedicated his life to fairness and justice.

“All these words in testament to Mark Cady, like an artist’s strokes on an enormous canvas, paint a portrait of Chief Justice Cady,” said Nathan Hecht, the Texas chief justice who is succeeding Cady as president of the Conference of Chief Justices. “Soft-spoken but strong, smiling but serious about his work, learned but laughing…distinguished, exceptional, respected and humble, and most of all, beloved.”

Cady had served on the Iowa Supreme Court since 1998, after first becoming a district associate judge in 1983. He was also appointed as a district court judge and an appeals court judge.

Hecht said Cady challenged the other chief justices to improve the justice system, and that they accept his challenge.

“Iowa has lost an extraordinary judge and statesman,” Hecht said. “I can tell you this—so has the country.”

Mark Brownlee, a friend of Cady’s from their time living in Fort Dodge, said he considered the memorial service Cady’s final investiture, “into Iowa judicial immortality.”

“Mark always viewed things through a prism of compassion, empathy, caring and kindness,” Brownlee said. “He was the embodiment of humility and fairness. That is why it is not possible to draw a bright line between his personal and public life, because the same qualities which were the foundation of his personal life and relationships permeated and guided his remarkable, tireless work as a jurist.”

Brownlee said he marveled at how Cady devoted so much time to his family, friends and work. Cady was married with two children and four grandchildren.

In the legal world, Cady is best known for writing a unanimous 2009 Iowa Supreme Court opinion that struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The decision made Iowa the third state in the nation to allow same-sex marriage, years before the U.S. Supreme Court did the same for the whole country in 2015.

Marsha Ternus, who was chief justice at the time, said Cady got the assignment of writing that opinion by chance. Ternus said Cady wrote a principled decision based on legal concepts, putting it in the context of Iowa’s history of upholding civil rights.

“This decision stands as one of Mark’s finest,” Ternus said. “But I want you to know that Mark cared about every decision he made, every opinion he wrote, and every party who brought their dispute to the court for resolution.”

She said Cady was the first Iowa chief justice to regularly take the court on the road to help Iowans all over the state understand how courts operate. He was also a leader on issues surrounding access to court services, juvenile justice, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And Ternus said he guided an expansion of family, drug and veterans courts, and made continued efforts to secure funding for them.

Cady’s friend Greg Kenyon was the final speaker. He said Cady had a great sense of humor, and loved music, sports, and “a fresh pressed shirt.”

Kenyon said a law student recently asked Cady about what makes a good lawyer.

“Mark said, ‘I find the best course is to be a good person. The best lawyers are the good persons who are the best versions of themselves, not those acting like their perceptions of a lawyer.’ So simple. So elegant,” Kenyon said.

He said the example Cady set for everyone is a wonderful gift.

The service ended with a prayer, and then the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus led everyone in singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” The casket was wheeled out of the room, and Cady’s family stayed to greet people.

Editor's note: Former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus currently serves on IPR's board of directors.