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Happy Birthday Ralph
By B John Burns
July 2, 2014

I know what people say about me (some of it, at least).  I know I’ve been accused of being nothing more than a cheerleader for the Court (by some people – others slug me on the back and grunt, “You keep writing that shit!!”).  And to this I plead guilty.

Sometimes.

It’s hard NOT to be a cheerleader for the Iowa Supreme Court.  

Sometimes.

What those guys (actually in those days it wasn’t all guys) did in Varnum v. Brien, and what ended the judicial career of three of them, was courageous and earth-shattering.  It sparked a tsunami that in the past four years has swept through an ever growing number of jurisdictions, including the United States Supreme Court.

And I’ve never held back in my praise for the Court’s brazen willingness to scuttle the federal courts’ interpretation of a constitutional right if more protection can be found in its own interpretation of its own parallel provision.

That’s not something new.  It goes all the way back to the very date the Court’s birth.

Tomorrow is the Court’s birthday.

It’s our country’s 238th birthday as well.  But 175 years ago tomorrow, on July 4, 1839, the Supreme Court of Iowa issued its first decision – a single page handwritten order in In re Matter of Ralph.

Ralph was a slave in Missouri.  Five years earlier, he entered into a contract with his owner, J. Montgomery, to buy back his freedom for $550.   He moved to Dubuque (I once had a girlfriend who moved to Dubuque after she secured HER freedom from ME) and worked in the lead mines, but couldn’t come up with the $550, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days.  Montgomery hired a couple of bounty hunters for $100 to bring him back.

But farmer Alexander Butterworth saw the bounty hunters seize Ralph and went to local Judge Thomas Wilson.   Judge Wilson issued a writ of habeas corpus and referred the case to the Supreme Court.  

In the handwritten order, Chief Justice Charles Mason ruled “that the said Ralph, a man of color, is free by operation of law; it is therefore ordered and adjudged that he be discharged from further duress and restraint.”  In the decision, the Court wrote, “no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery.”  Ralph may still owe Montgomery the $550, but “[w]hen, in seeking to accomplish his object, [Montgomery] illegally restrains a human being of his liberty, it is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.  We think, therefore, that [Ralph] should be discharged from all custody and constraint, and be permitted to go free while he remains under the protection of our laws.”

The same question came before our United States Supreme Court in 1857 with, unfortunately, a different result.  Unfortunately, it took a bloody war costing the lives of 618,222 Americans to finally get it right.  And, by the way, the Equal Protection Clause, referred to by the Iowa Court in its decision, took effect in 1868, 29 years after In re Matter of Ralph.

I’ll be celebrating THAT tomorrow.
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Criminal Procedure 4A

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This reference offers a comprehensive analysis of Iowa criminal procedure. It analyzes criminal procedure, including pre-trial, trial, sentencing, and post-conviction procedure. Provides a comprehensive manual covering all procedural aspects of an Iowa criminal case, from the time you are first engaged to represent a suspected or charged individual, through the final steps of a criminal appeal or state or federal post conviction relief proceeding. Separate divisions review evidentiary issues in criminal trials, constitutional provisions affecting criminal cases, and the representation of inmates in prison litigation.


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