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Iowa’s top appellate judge, ‘strong, collaborative leader,’ is retiring

Thomas Bower, chief judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, has served as the court's chief judge since 2019.  He will retire in July.  Photographed May 22 at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Thomas Bower, chief judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, has served as the court’s chief judge since 2019. He will retire in July. Photographed May 22 at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

He knows it may sound like an ABBA song, but Iowa Court of Appeals Chief Judge Thomas Bower sees his 38-year legal career as people taking a chance on him as he goes from arguing cases as a prosecutor to making decisions as a judge. that would influence future opinions.

“So many people have taken a chance on me or given me a chance,” Bower told The Gazette during an interview last week.

Now set to retire on July 1, he humbly reminisced about his career as he sat in a Black Hawk County courtroom, where he spent many hours as a prosecutor and district court judge before being appointed to the bench in 2012 Court of Appeal.

“I started as a prosecutor in the basement of this courthouse when I left Drake University Law School in 1987,” said Bower, 63, of Cedar Falls. “I had a new baby and a wife of three years.”

He credits his wife, Amy, as the main person who took a chance on him in high school. They got married in college and have been together for 40 years so far.

As an assistant Black Hawk County prosecutor, he described himself as “moderately aggressive” but realized that “everyone has a story – a life story – and what I saw was a small part of that life.”

“I honestly believe that 99 percent of people are good. Sometimes good people do bad things, but just because you do something bad doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. “I’ve always tried to take some of those things into account,” he said. But: “Sometimes you can’t like it in the cases of murders, assaults and armed robberies.”

Thomas Bower, chief judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, was appointed to the court in 2012 by then-Gov.  Terry Branstad.  He will retire on July 1.  Photographed May 22 at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Thomas Bower, chief judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals, was appointed to the court in 2012 by then-Gov. Terry Branstad. He will retire on July 1. Photographed May 22 at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Bower initially “didn’t want to be in a courtroom.” He grew up in Normal, Illinois, as a latch-key kid because his single mother — the first nurse in Illinois — always worked late and he watched TV cop shows like “Adam 12” and “Dragnet.”

He thought about going into corrections, but then his older brother went to law school. So he followed. He got the opportunity to try cases during an internship at the Polk County Attorney’s Office and was hooked.

Become a judge

“Two judges, Robert Mahan and Jim Bauch, encouraged me to become a district judge in 1993,” said Bower, who was 32 at the time. ‘And I thought about becoming a judge one day, but I thought I wasn’t smart enough. Although I did have common sense. You know, you doubt yourself. My wife says I am the most outwardly confident and inwardly insecure person she has ever known.

Bauch, a retired appellate and district court judge, said Bower was “hardworking and conscientious” as a prosecutor and as a judge. Bower was well prepared for his cases and has a “wonderful and open demeanor and was fair as a judge.”

“I hate to see him leave the court, but I know he wants to spend more time with his family,” Bauch said.

Senior Judge Mike Mullins of the Iowa Court of Appeals said Bower is a “great judge” because he is humble and caring. He goes out of his way to show his fellow judges and staff members, whom he does not see regularly, that he appreciates their work and cares about them.

As an appellate judge, Bower sends out anniversary notifications for each court employee and writes “snippets about them, congratulating them and thanking them for their service,” Mullins said.

“We called ourselves the ‘out of town’ when we had to come to Des Moines for court and stayed in a hotel,” Mullins told a reporter last week. “When we went out to eat, Tom started buying bread pudding to go with it.” to the hotel night staff to show his appreciation. It became a regular tradition.”

During his time as a district judge, Bower helped the First Judicial District develop one of the first drug courts in 2006 and served as judge of the court for 10 years. Other drug courts followed suit, and now there are nine others in Iowa.

He also helped the county establish a domestic violence court and a mental health court in 2009. But the mental health court lost funding and did not move forward.

Bower said his involvement in drug court was a rewarding experience because he saw the difference it made in the lives of participants. It was his chance to “pay it forward” and take a chance on others.

He also had an interest in the prevention of domestic violence and child abuse and spoke nationally on the issues. Bower said he had friends who were exposed to violence. And growing up with a single mother, he was “exposed to the inequalities that come with being a woman.”

Court of Appeal

He had twice applied to be appointed to the Court of Appeal and thought he was ‘done with it’. But when he got a vacancy notice in 2011, he told his wife he would try again.

Then-Government. Terry Branstad appointed Bower first to the district court and then to the appeals court in January 2012.

Nine judges serve on the Court of Appeals, which hears appeals of court decisions transferred from the state Supreme Court. The decision is final unless reviewed by the Supreme Court. Bower earns a base salary of more than $175,000 per year.

“Chief Justice Bower has been a strong, collaborative leader since he was first appointed to the court more than three decades ago,” Iowa Supreme Court Justice Susan Christensen told The Gazette.

“He led efforts to bring successful treatment courts to Waterloo, was elected chief judge of his judicial district and was selected by his fellow judges to lead the court of appeals. I greatly appreciated his abilities, support and collegiality when I became Chief Justice four years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, and he has been a strong ally since.”

Bower said he couldn’t point to just one statement having a major impact during his career because they were all important. The justices write for litigants, the bar and the lower courts to “help everyone do their jobs better.”

“People support the name on the docket and this is the most important thing to them,” Bower said. “We owe them our attention and time. Sometimes we are wrong and make mistakes. I’m always wrong at home,” he said, laughing.

Based on his 38-year legal career, Bower was asked by a reporter if he was concerned about how the court is viewed today and if he was concerned about politics affecting the independence of the courts.

Bower said he has been concerned in recent years, nationally and stateside, that some people don’t seem to remember that there are three equal but separate branches of government — and one branch is the courts. Court decisions are expected to favor either Democrats or Republicans, but Iowa has had a good mix of both in the past, which he believes will benefit everyone.

“It is also troublesome that people are taking away the independence of the courts through legislation or by expecting us to do so, and some are even giving up their independence,” he said. “That bothers me. It is worrying.”

Bower also remains concerned about public access to the courts. There is still a lack of lawyers in small communities. Some do not have a lawyer in town for matters such as protective measures in sexual assault and domestic violence. Or residents may have a probate problem and need a will to protect their property and assets.

Retire early

Bower, who has been twice elected chief justice by his colleagues, says he is retiring early for several reasons, but mainly to spend more time with his family. He has two sons and a 21-month-old grandson.

He plans to assume senior status at the court and work a minimum of thirteen weeks a year, which will allow him to continue public service as well as spend time with his family and travel.

“I’ve been doing this (as a judge) for 31 years and I love it, but I want to enjoy the time I have left. There were always people who said to him, “You’ll know when it’s time.” It’s time.”

The state Judicial Nominating Commission earlier this week nominated five judges to replace Bower on the court: Jeffrey Bert of Bettendorf; Alan Sky of Garnavillo; Amy Moore of Ames; John Sandy of Spirit Lake; and Shawn Douches of Washington.

The governor has thirty days to appoint a new judge.

A public ceremony honoring Bower’s retirement will take place on June 13 at 3 p.m. The ceremony will take place in the Iowa Supreme Court courtroom at the Iowa Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.

Notes: (319) 398-8318; [email protected]