The death of Chief Justice Mark Cady leaves a massive void in the Iowa judiciary. Aside from the shock of his death at 66, it comes at a time when the relationship of the judicial branch to the other levers of governmental power is under as much scrutiny as it has ever been. It is a delicate time for the courts.

Cady was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1998. The court selects its own chief justice, and in 2011 Cady’s fellow justices selected him. Justice David Wiggins, who served alongside Cady for 16 years, said Cady “led the court with a clear vision and one overriding goal: to be the best court system in the country.”

Marsha Ternus and Louis Lavarato, who preceded Cady as chief justices for the state, praised Cady both as a person and a committed legal scholar. Lavorato said Cady’s career was “cut short at a time when his leadership was so desperately needed.” He is unquestionably right.

The courts are a coequal branch of government under both the state and federal constitutions. The legislatures and executive officers are, by design, partisan. The judiciary is not.

The courts are not perfect. How could they be? They are populated by humans who make human errors and have human flaws. It is impossible for anyone of good conscience to look back at decisions like Dred Scott v. Sandford or Plessy v. Ferguson and not cringe. But it is equally impossible to look back at the courts’ better moments, decisions which expanded freedom for our country and enshrined rights for all, and not feel pride.

Those decisions, often made in the face of considerable opposition, happened because the courts understood and protected their independence from the political processes that define the other branches of our government. For years they did so by conspicuous abstention from public engagement.

Today’s world no longer allows for such distance, and the Iowa Supreme Court under Cady recognized that. Sessions held outside the court’s home in Des Moines brought thousands of Iowans the opportunity to see how the court works, to witness the justices wrestling with points on which good people had drawn different conclusions and try to find the outcome that best complied with the state’s legal framework.

But the courts themselves also faced difficult times. Separated from the power of the purse by design and from public relations by instinct, the courts found themselves pressed by a legislature which saw the judiciary as another tool rather than an equal branch. Cady was as good a spokesman for the courts as Iowans could have hoped. He defended the courts with passion and dignity.

Whoever becomes the next chief justice will have big shoes to fill. But the path Cady and his predecessors set for the courts is clear, and that sense of identity and mission may well be among his greatest legacies.

Cady’s untimely death is a loss for Iowa. But his example remains as clear, and as important, as ever.

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