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A pillar of excellence

‘He was bigger than life’: Chief Justice Cady remembered in Fort Dodge

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady

As chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, Mark Cady’s dedication to law was unwavering. As a husband, father and grandfather, he was loyal, loving and supportive. As a friend, he was honest and a good listener. As a member of the Fort Dodge community, Cady was active and committed. As a man, he was humble and wise.

According to those who knew him, these characteristics help to define Cady, who died Friday after suffering a heart attack in Des Moines. He was 66.

Cady, born in Rapid City, South Dakota, first arrived in Fort Dodge in 1979 to work as a law clerk for Judge Albert Habhab.

Habhab said it didn’t take long to realize that Cady would go on to accomplish great things.

“Mark’s abilities were recognized immediately by those of us that he worked with,” Habhab said. “If he was given a legal problem that needed resolving, he accepted that responsibility wholeheartedly.”

-Messenger file photo
Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady speaks to a group of St. Edmond Catholic School students in their Introduction to Criminal Justice class in March 2019.

Cady was appointed a district associate judge in 1983 and a district court judge in 1986. In 1994, he was appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

He was elected chief judge of the Court of Appeals in 1997. The following year he was named to the state Supreme Court.

“His humble beginning was as a law clerk and by his own perseverance and dedication to the law, he advanced from a magistrate to a district court judge to a judge on the Iowa Court of Appeals to a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court to chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, to positions not held by many as a president of the Council of Chief Justices and chairman of the National Center for State Courts,” Habhab said.

Cady had served on the Supreme Court since 1998 and was elected chief justice by his fellow justices in 2011.

Of all the opinions he wrote while on the bench, his 2009 opinion in the case of Varnum v. Brien which legalized same sex marriage in Iowa, gained the most public attention.

That decision wasn’t an easy one for Cady. And not one he came to lightly, according to Fort Dodge Attorney Neven Mulholland, who knew Cady for more than 40 years.

“It weighed heavily with him,” Mulholland said. “He worked so hard on that. And he really tried to get it right, I can tell you that. I think he did. He wanted it right and he worked so hard to make sure at the end of the process he followed the law. I think after that he was very surprised and disappointed in how many people received that decision. He truly did what he believed was right in following the law, but I know he was disappointed in how some friends and the public reacted to it with him.”

Lori Branderhorst, of Fort Dodge, whose daughter married Cady’s son, said Cady helped give people a voice.

“While it’s a personal loss for our family, his legacy is more important for those who have been oppressed and needed to be heard and needed to be represented,” Branderhorst said. “We have been really blessed.”

Branderhorst said she feels lucky to have had someone like Cady be part of the family.

“He’s probably one of the most genuine, fair, humble men that I know,” Branderhorst said.

Cady loved his family, Branderhorst said.

“There was nothing more adorable than to see him with his four granddaughters,” Branderhorst said. “He was king of the world when he was around those girls. It will be our jobs to teach his grandkids who Mark Cady was and to be people of service.”

Fort Dodge attorney Mark Crimmins knew Cady both professionally and personally.

“I came to town in 1985, just out of law school,” Crimmins recalled. “He’s the first judge I met and worked in front of when I came back.”

Crimmins said he respected and looked up to Cady.

“On many occasions, even recently, I went to Mark for advice,” Crimmins said. “His contributions to our profession are obvious to anyone who watches our profession or watches the court, but I think more important than that is the person he was. His friendship meant the world to me and my family.”

Crimmins said the two watched their sons grow up together and coached sports together.

One unmistakable trait of Cady’s was his sincerity, Crimmins said.

“If Mark was talking to you, he was talking to you,” Crimmins said. “He wasn’t looking around the room, he was engaged. He was interested in my life and my family’s life. He was so genuine.”

That attitude was reflected whether at a social gathering or in the courts.

“He cared,” Crimmins said. “He cared about the law, he cared about the courts and everybody that passed before him.”

One thing that Crimmins was surprised to learn was that Cady believed small claims courts to be the most important.

“He felt that small claims court was the most important court in our system because it saw the most people and gave people an impression of how the court system worked,” Crimmins said. “Our court system is a lot better because of him.”

Crimmins added, “He truly wanted justice. Everything he did, he did it right and in accordance with the constitution. He was a tremendous judge and an even better person.”

When Matt Bemrich became mayor of Fort Dodge, it was Cady who swore him into office.

“I thought of Mark as a mentor, a person I looked up to,” Bemrich said. “I’ll never forget the kind of person he was. He still had so much to offer not only the state of Iowa but our community and his friends and family. He’s just a wonderful man that’s gone too soon.”

Bemrich said he could talk to Cady about anything.

And one year the two of them had lunch after Cady delivered his Condition of the Judiciary Speech.

“Just hearing him talk about anything from the Condition of the Judiciary to college football,” Bemrich said. “He could talk about anything and was informed. He always seemed to have the kind of wisdom that I respected.”

So much so that when Bemrich faced a difficult decision as mayor, he would often consider how Cady might respond.

“I would often think to myself, ‘I wonder how Mark would handle this?'” Bemrich said.

And when he needed advice, Cady was responsive.

“He would always take the time and give me pointed advice that resonated with how I was feeling and gave me the advice that the issue at hand was one worth accomplishing.”

Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, fondly recalls playing on an over-30 basketball team with Cady.

He described Cady as competitive and humble.

“He was the most unpretentious and nice individuals that I think I’ve ever known,” Plautz said. “I never heard him say anything negative about anyone. That’s the Mark Cady I knew.”

To Fort Dodge attorney Stu Cochrane, Cady was a pillar of excellence.

“He exemplified what it meant to be professional,” Cochrane said. “Every person he met, whether it was a lawyer, citizen, didn’t matter who it was, he treated everyone with the utmost respect. He didn’t have a shred of arrogance in him.”

Cochrane said Cady was deliberate with his words.

“Every time he sat on the bench, when he talked to people, he was slow and deliberate and careful with his words,” said Cochrane, who knew Cady for 34 years. “You know he did so because he cared so much about the message he conveyed. It was always extremely sincere and well thought out. Mark was one of those unique people that everything he did came from the heart.”

And when it came to decisions in the court or in life, Cady didn’t look for the easy solution, according to Cochrane. He wanted the right one.

“Mark wasn’t looking for easy decisions,” Cady said. “He saw his role as following the law and doing the right thing and he did that every day.”

Cady was an adjunct faculty member at Buena Vista University for more than 30 years and served on its President’s Advisory Council.

In 2012, Cady received an honorary doctorate degree in Public Service from Buena Vista University. He received the Award of Merit from the Iowa Judges Association in 2015. He received the Outstanding Alumnus Award from Drake University Law School in 2011, he received the Alumni Achievement Award from Drake University in 2012, and the Judicial Achievement Award from the Iowa Association for Justice in 2016. Cady was also the Iowa chair of iCivics Inc.

Cady, who earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from Drake University in Des Moines, had a strong interest in educating the public.

“He saw his role as service to people in community and if you invited Mark to a speaking engagement, he would be there,” Cochrane said. “He used his position as an opportunity to advocate for justice. He wasn’t one of those judges who sat on the bench and made decisions. He saw it as a bigger job, promoting justice everywhere he went.”

Cochrane added, “You would find him in classrooms. He taught at the college. The time he dedicated to the profession is hard to put in to words. The law meant everything to him.”

Cady cared about Fort Dodge.

“He loved Fort Dodge and the citizens of Fort Dodge,” Cochrane said “He did youth sports. He was active with his kids growing up. You could find him on a football field or a baseball field. He was so much bigger than a lawyer or a judge. He made you want to be a better person. When you listened to him, he was someone everyone else wanted to emulate.”

And for someone as accomplished as Cady, he rarely made things about him, Cochrane said.

“He was bigger than life,” Cochrane said. “He was the kind of guy, as high profile as he was, if he met you on the street, he didn’t want to talk about him. He wanted to know about how you were doing. It was about what he could do for someone else.”

What Chief Justice Mark Cady means to Fort Dodge

“I never met a person who cared as much about the legal system and justice in a general sense than Chief Justice Cady.”

-Judge Thomas Bice

“That decision “Varnum v. Brien” is being used in constitutional law classes across the country. He touched an entire generation of lawyers coming forward with his thinking and prowess in navigating constitutional law in that case. It’s just profound.”

-Attorney Janece Valentine

“He was a devoted husband and father. His lovely wife, Becky, was always at his side.”

-Judge Albert Habhab

“We need more leaders like Mark Cady in this world. Someone who emits dignity and evokes respect, whether you agreed with him or not. In so many ways, Mark Cady was both Fort Dodge and Iowa. He stood for who we are and what we aspired to be. He was one of the most decent men I’d ever had the good fortune to meet. His presence as a voice of reason in our state will be sorely missed.”

-Eric Pratt, sports editor of The Messenger

“He was so skilled as a judge. The moves he made were so natural. Nobody ever questioned that he was someone who would reach the pinnacle of judgeship, just for the way he impacted people and handled every situation. He was professional. His demeanor was always something you marveled at. He had incredible temperament and wisdom. He was so sincere in everything he did.”

-Attorney Stu Cochrane

“He was a man’s man. You don’t see too many people like this anymore. He excelled with his family and his career.”

-Attorney Neven Mulholland

Service information

A celebration of life scheduled for Nov. 20 in the Knapp Center on the Drake University campus, 2601 Forest Ave., in Des Moines. The celebration begins at 10 a.m. The family will greet the public after the service. Members of the public are invited to honor Chief Justice Cady for the significant contributions he made to the Iowa Judicial Branch and judicial independence. Private family services are planned. Gunderson Funeral Home and Cremation Services is entrusted with the arrangements.