The Iowa Supreme Court

It is the duty of the Supreme Court to decide about the meaning of the law. The legislative branch of government makes the laws, and the executive branch carries out those laws. Sometimes, there is confusion about the meaning of a law. When this happens, the judicial branch decides what the law really means. 

There are many courts in the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. 

How to Become a Judge

There are seven justices on the Iowa Supreme Court. Judges must have law degrees. At one time state judges were elected by popular vote. But since 1962 judges have been appointed by a commission of lawyers and non-lawyers. In 1986 the first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is elected by the majority vote of the court. 

Railroad Cases

Since Iowa became a state, the Supreme Court has made thousands of decisions about the meaning of the law. In the 1880s there were many Supreme Court decisions about railroad laws. Railroads had made travel faster and easier, but they brought problems too. One of these problems was safety. Animals and people wandered onto the railroad tracks and were sometimes hit. The legislature passed laws to protect people and livestock. The laws said the railroads must build fences and gates to keep people and livestock off the tracks. Train engineers were told they must watch out for people on the tracks. When there was a question about whether the railroads obeyed these laws, the Supreme Court studied the facts and made a decision. 

After the Supreme Court makes a decision, a report is made. Here are two Supreme Court reports about railroad fencing and safety laws and the decisions that were made.

Case Study: McAllister v. The Burlington & Northwestern Railway Company-1885

On the evening of March 6, 1882, Mr. McAllister started to walk from his home in Burlington to the home of his father, a distance of about six miles. The road he traveled crossed the railroad track two or three miles from the city. When he reached the crossing, instead of keeping on the road, he walked along the railroad track for one-half or three-quarters of a mile. The road and railroad track ran side-by-side for most of the way. When he reached a place where the road turned away from the railroad, he tried to leave the track and get back to the road, but the railroad right-of-way was fenced with a barbwire fence which was difficult to pass. So, Mr. McAllister turned around and went back on the railroad track towards Burlington, planning to leave the railroad at the crossing where he had entered the railroad right-of-way. It was after nightfall, and while he walked back towards the crossing, a train, including an engine and five cars running 13 to 15 miles an hour, came down from the north, in the same direction Mr. McAllister was walking and struck and ran over him. He was severely and permanently injured.

The headlight on the engine was burning and could have been plainly seen for a distance of some 2,000 feet. The wind was blowing in the direction which Mr. McAllister was traveling. He was in full possession of his sight and hearing and was not insane.

The engineer and other employees of the train did not see Mr. McAllister and did not know of the accident until the next day. Mr. McAllister claims that the engineer should have seen him and avoided injuring him.

The Decision of the Court: When an adult person, in full possession of mind and senses, for his own convenience, walks upon a railroad track, he is guilty of carelessness and has no right to demand that persons operating trains shall be on the lookout for him to save him from injury.

Case Study: Miller v. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway Company- 1885

This was a lawsuit to recover damages for cattle killed by a Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific train.

Mr. Miller owned land on both sides of the track, and it was fenced. There were farm road crossings, cattle-guards, and gates to prevent livestock from wandering onto the railroad right-of-way. The fence and gates were properly constructed and so were the cattle-guards. One of the gates was left open, and the cattle passed through and on to the track because the fence extending from the main fence to the track was out of repair. The cattle were killed by a train.

The railroad company claimed it was not responsible for repair of the crossing and cattle-guard because there was no request that the repair be made, and the company was therefore not responsible to pay for the dead cattle.

The Decision of the Court: A railway company is not required to construct farm crossings, gates, fences and cattle-guards. But where the railroad does build them, it must keep them in repair so that they work properly. The railway company had to pay Mr. Miller double the value of his cattle.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “The Supreme Court,” The Goldfinch, (Spring 1976): 14-16.


The judicial branch decides what the law means. Read two Supreme Court cases to see what happened.

Media Artifacts

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