Historical Society presents ‘Judges of Greene County’

Sunday program tells stories of local judges

~by Chuck Offenburger, Greene County Historical Society

The Greene County Historical Society opens its 2015 calendar of special programs on Sunday, Feb. 1, with a 2 pm presentation on the “Judges of Greene County.” Their stories will be told in a perfect setting – the beautiful courtroom on the third floor of the historic Greene County courthouse in Jefferson.

The program is free and open to the public.

David Morain, a Jefferson attorney who is president of the Greene County Bar Association, is coordinating the event, and will open it talking about the judges who helped set up the county and its communities after settlement in the 1850s and ’60s. “One thing that struck me as I started studying the judges’ histories is how in those early times, a lot of their work went beyond making judicial decisions,” he said.

“They were integral in establishing and organizing our communities, even drawing up maps like city planners. It was Judge Robert Rippey who did that for the city of Jefferson. Today, judges are much more careful about what they get involved in beyond their judicial duties so that they can avoid conflicts of interest, or even the possible appearance of conflicts of interest.”

Also talking will be current Iowa district court Judge William Ostlund of Jefferson, the sitting judge assigned in Greene County while serving the court’s District 2, which includes 22 counties in northwest and north central Iowa. Ostlund, who has been on the bench since 1994, will talk about some of the unusual cases, characters and inspiring stories he has encountered in his judicial career.

Greene County has produced many other distinguished judges through the decades, including U.S. district court Judge William Hanson, his son Iowa district court Judge Robert Hanson and, perhaps the best known, Justice David Harris of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Harris, who died at age 82 in 2010, was a World War II infantryman who did his undergraduate and law studies at the University of Iowa post-war. He went into private practice in Jefferson from 1951 to ’62, served as Greene County attorney from 1959-’62, then was appointed to the Iowa district court bench in 1962. After 10 years there, he was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1972 by Gov. Robert D. Ray.

During his Supreme Court years, Harris continued to live in Jefferson and office in the Greene County courthouse. He was a prolific writer, authoring more than 800 majority opinions and more than 100 dissents. Local people also remember him for his poetry, which he shared occasionally in newspapers and poetry collections. His wife Madonna still lives in Jefferson, and his son-in-law Nic Martino is the long-serving Greene County attorney.

The county has produced other judges over the years, including Iowa district court Judge Timothy Finn, now of Ames, and Iowa district court Senior Judge Gerald Magee, now of Charles City, both of whom also serve District 2; Iowa district court Jeffrey A. Neary, now of Merrill in northwest Iowa, serving District 3; as well as judicial magistrates, and in earlier years, justices of the peace.

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