By Max Calenberg
On Monday, Jan. 28, Grinnell College alum and current town resident Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94 was selected as one of the final nine candidates for appointment to the Iowa State Supreme Court. Governor Terry Branstad has 30 days to interview each of the finalists and select three to replace the justices who were ousted from their positions in the November general election.
Onwuachi-Willig graduated from Grinnell in 1994 with a major in American Studies. During her time here, she took several classes with Dr. Kesho Scott, Sociology, who noticed several of Onwuachi-Willig’s defining qualities.
“I noted that she really enjoyed reading original documents like ‘The Declaration of Independence’ or slave narratives,” Scott said. “I saw this propensity for this young woman to really ask deeper, challenging questions of American culture.”
Victoria Brown, History, who taught Onwuachi-Willig for two semesters of American History, noticed a similar tendency to approach history through the evidence while putting the lore aside.
“She had no romance about American history. There were very few icons who she should be surprised weren’t really icons,” Brown said. “She had a very raw humor. Sometimes students would be passionately arguing about something and Angela would, in a very dry way, essentially say, ‘Get over it, these guys were not any more heroes than any of the rest of us.’”
After graduating with honors from Grinnell, where she was the first black Student Government Association President, Onwuachi-Willig went on to law school at the University of Michigan, where she earned her J.D. in 1997.
After law school, Angela traveled to Cleveland and Boston to practice law. She then moved to California to teach at UC-Davis before finally returning to Iowa in 2006 when she was hired by the University of Iowa as a Professor of Law.
During her initial Supreme Court interview, when she was competing against 61 other applicants just to make it to the pool of nine finalists, Onwuachi-Willig spoke of Supreme Court decisions that had affected her life and how “[her] entire life has prepared [her] for service on [the Iowa Supreme Court].”
The Iowa Supreme Court has never had a minority sit on its bench and has only had three women in its history, a fact Onwuachi-Willig is quite aware of. If Onwuachi-Willig is not chosen for the Court, it will once again be comprised only of men.
“I bring to the bench an understanding of what it means to be a party of a vulnerable socioeconomic population, one of the types of population that lawyers speak when stressing the importance of access to justice,” Onwuachi-Willig said. “I also am the American-born daughter of legal immigrants to the United States, and in that respect, the lens through which I may see and approach matters may be more global, a factor that is increasingly becoming more important in a world that is becoming more globally independent.”
Scott seconded the value that Onwuachi-Willig could bring to the Court.
“She’s key to be able to add to the conversation that these judges are going to have to have about Iowa,” Scott said.
At 37 years old, Onwuachi-Willig is the youngest nominee by eight years and regardless of whether or not she is appointed, Scott will always be impressed by her accomplishments.
“She always called me, she always let me know what she was doing and I think it was an unspoken kind of agreement that I was a mentor of hers, but actually I was always an admirer of her,” Scott said.
Governor Branstad has until Feb. 27 to make his decision.