The Iowa legal system goes back to before the founding of the State which occurred in 1846. Prior to that time, justice was administered via Territorial Courts which were overseen by a few Justices of the Peace and three judges who oversaw all manners of dispute.

The Iowa legal system was enhanced via congressional legislation in 1838 which created the Territorial Government of Iowa that called for, inter alia, a supreme court, district courts, probate courts, and justices of the peace.
Iowa became the twenty-ninth state when it joined the Union in 1846. The state’s constitution of 1846, like that of the United States, separated the powers of government into the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. During Iowa’s first legislative session, the state was divided into four judicial districts.

The Iowa Constitution was amended in 1857, leaving the judicial powers in the hands of the supreme court, district courts, and other lower courts. However, due to the growth of the citizenry of the state, the constitution of 1857 increased the number of judicial districts from four to eleven.

It would be another one-hundred plus years before the Iowa judicial system would once again be revamped when, in order to increase efficiency and decrease costs, the Unified Trial Court Act of 1973 was passed. The Act created the Iowa District Court system while at the same time eliminated over five-hundred justice of the peace courts, nearly one-thousand mayor’s courts, as well as many municipal and police courts. Further, the Act created the positions of judicial magistrates and district associate judges.

From the Court’s inception, Iowa has proven to be a national leader in civil rights. In fact, the first case heard by the Iowa Supreme Court was “The Matter of Ralph” in which the Iowa Supreme Court declared that “Ralph”, a Missouri slave, was in fact free. It was this decision that laid the precedent that no person could hold another in servitude.

The items within this exhibit are some excellent examples of some of Iowa’s earliest legal documents including jury summons, circuit court schedules, and more.