Family is Key to Iowa Supreme Court Justice's Success

Family is Key to Iowa Supreme Court Justice’s Success

By Lisa Foster, BA’92

Susan Larson Christensen, JD’91, the newest justice on the Iowa Supreme Court, says she isn’t much one for bragging, yet perhaps it was “humble bragging” that got her to where she is today.

The 56-year-old officially took office on Sept. 4, as the third woman in Iowa’s history to serve on the state’s high court. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds administered the oath of office to Christensen in a public ceremony on Sept. 21 in Des Moines.

Christensen previously served as a 4th Judicial District Court judge in Iowa, as well as a juvenile court judge, where she showed a commitment to children’s welfare issues by serving on Iowa’s Children’s Justice State Council, Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Workgroup, Guardianship/Conservatorship Task Force, Cass-Audubon Family Treatment Court and Child Support Review Committee.

Christensen replaces Justice Bruce Zager, who announced his impending retirement in May.

“I’m not comfortable doing (humble bragging),” Christensen says in a recorded video interview in July, when she was one of 22 candidates vying for the position. “But perhaps it is the best way I can get my story out to you; to help you understand why I am the best person for this job.’’

Christensen’s humble beginnings are rooted in Harlan, Iowa, where she and her husband, Jay, an optometrist, continue to live today. “Even in my new role, we are committed to the people of rural Iowa and staying here. I’ll travel to Des Moines as needed,” Christensen says.

Prior to becoming a justice, Christensen was a prosecutor and family law attorney for 16 years and spent the past 11 years as a judge for Iowa’s 4th Judicial District (eight years as an associate judge and three years as a district court judge).

The Christensens are the parents of five children — Nic, Adam, Rees, Sadie and Cass — who range in age from 36 to 16. They also have four grandchildren.

Susan and Jay met in first grade, started dating at age 15 and married at 19. “We always knew we’d get married young,” Christensen recalls. After high school, Susan took a one-year legal secretary course at AIB College of Business in Des Moines, worked as a legal secretary in Sioux City for a few years, and then joined Jay, who was in his fourth year of studies at the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion.

At this point, Christensen had also decided that being a legal secretary wasn’t going to be a forever career — she wanted to pursue her own undergraduate education and eventually go to law school to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Christensen’s father is the late former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Jerry Larson, who died in April. Larson served on the court from 1978 to 2008 and holds the record as the longest-serving justice in Iowa. One of Christensen’s siblings, David Larson, went to Creighton law school as well, graduating in 1992. He practices law in Avoca, Iowa.

While law may be in her family’s blood, the way Christensen went about her studies was a bit unusual. She completed her first year of college at USD, but then Jay got a job offer in California and Susan joined him and did her second year at Cal State Fresno.

Already parents to their oldest child with another on the way, the couple started pondering a return home.

“We had our second baby in California, but Nic, our first, had just been diagnosed with cerebral palsy,” Christensen recalls. “Our doctor said to us, ‘You’re both from Iowa — what are you doing out here? The University of Iowa is home to one of the best hospitals in the country for treating children with this disorder.’’’

The Christensens then moved back to the Midwest, where Susan started her third year of undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa and Jay started optometry school in Chicago.

Eventually, Susan joined Jay in Chicago and completed her undergraduate degree in psychology from Judson College, a Baptist-affiliated university, in 1988.

“But I didn’t want to stay in inner-city Chicago,” Christensen recalls. “It was time for Nic to start school — and for me to start law school — and Jay and I wanted Nic to be mainstreamed, not in a special school. I applied to the University of Iowa, Drake University and Creighton University and got accepted into all three.”

While a student at Creighton, Christensen served as a mentor to first-year law students, was a member of the Phi Alpha Delta legal fraternity and graduated cum laude. In October, she was the featured speaker at a reception following Creighton’s Red Mass, an annual service that marks the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term and celebrates all members of the legal profession.

“What made me choose Creighton was that I could go home to Harlan, attend law school an hour away in Omaha and have family support. All four parents were a big part of my ability to do this,” she adds.

“If Nic were cured tomorrow — if he could walk and talk like other people — I would not want to change how his disability has affected my life,” Christensen says. “I am a better person because of him, and I believe this is reflected in the way I handle myself as a wife, mother, friend or judge.”

At Creighton law school, Christensen was pregnant with the couple’s third child, had her husband finishing his optometry studies in Chicago — with him commuting eight hours on the weekends for two years to see the family — and still graduated with honors.

“You do what you gotta do for family,” Christensen says. “Creighton helped make it possible to reach my career aspirations.”