DES MOINES — Newly installed Iowa Supreme Court Associate Justice Susan Christensen is living the dream.
Christensen, 56, who grew up watching her late father, Jerry Larson of Harlan, become the longest-serving Supreme Court justice in Iowa history from 1978 to 2008, never envisioned herself on a similar path in her youth. But once she got the encouragement to pursue a law career, she said she knew she wanted to be a judge.
“I just liked the way it worked in our family and I thought that’s a neat career and I could see myself being happy with that, too,” said Christensen, who “married young” and started out working as a secretary in a Sioux City law office to help cover family expenses before launching her legal career.
“Once I decided to do that, I always wanted to be a judge,” she said. “Other lawyer friends never had that desire.”
At the same time, she began what became a trek to the Iowa Judicial Building with eyes wide open, knowing the work commitment it would take to follow in her father’s footsteps and in some ways do more to overcompensate and overcome a perception she was advancing on her dad’s credentials rather than her own.
“I worked really hard to get here,” she said in a recent interview.
A Harlan native and mother of five children — including a son with cerebral palsy — Christensen learned to balance family and work with her husband of 37 years. She conducted a law practice in Harlan, served on the local school board and worked as an assistant county attorney as well as in family and juvenile law before becoming an associate district judge in 2007 and a district judge in 2015 in an expansive southwest Iowa judicial district.
“I’m high (energy) level. I like to be busy,” noted Christensen, who openly discussed her disappointment in twice being passed over as an appellate court applicant before being selected from three candidates by the State Judicial Nominating Commission in July and appointed last month by Gov. Kim Reynolds to replace Justice Bruce Zager on the Iowa Supreme Court after he retired Sep. 3.
It was Reynolds’ first appoint to the Iowa Supreme Court. Christensen is the third woman to ever serve on the court, and her appointment means Iowa is no longer the only state with no women on its highest court.
Having practiced law when Iowa previously had two women on the court, Christensen said she did not view her appointment to the bench as particularly remarkable. But was surprised by the outpouring of support by a new generation of Iowans who have not seen a female state justice in nearly a decade.
“That’s a heavy responsibility that I don’t take lightly,” she said.
Christensen received her law degree from the Creighton University School of Law in Omaha in 1991.
Now as “the new kid on the block,” Christensen said she is immersed in the day-to-day challenges of being part of a seven-member court.
She said she hopes to bring a rural perspective and advocacy to a state-run system that has faced budget challenges that impact judicial caseloads and threaten to scale back or close courthouse operations in counties with smaller populations.
“That’s a very scary thing for our rural communities. I think our schools and our courthouses are two huge, huge participants in every county of our state. I think if either one of those is threatened, it threatens the entire vitality of that county,” she said.
Christensen — a grandmother of four known as the “cookie judge” while she presided over juvenile court cases — said she believes there are creative ways to provide efficient court services without inflicting “absolute collateral damage” by shutting down courthouses and forcing people to drive even farther or face inconveniences.
“That’s why I’m glad to be up here to be a part of that conversation,” she said. “I don’t know what the answer is but I don’t think the answer is shutting down courthouses and I will be a voice kicking and screaming if that is the recommendation. I know I can’t stop it, but I certainly want to be heard.”
As she assumes her new job and $171,000 yearly salary, Christensen — who will face a retention election in 2020 — has said she will continue living and working in Shelby County and travel to Des Moines as needed for court business.
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