One of Iowa’s newest Supreme Court justices cut her teeth in juvenile court and spent more than a decade helping children of drug-addicted parents find the right places to live.
It’s the reason people call her the “cookie judge.”
Susan Christensen, 57, of Harlan, was appointed to the state’s high court last year. She typically commutes several days each week to Des Moines for work but prefers to live in western Iowa with her husband and high-school sweetheart Jay, with whom she raised five children.
The daughter of a former Supreme Court justice, Christensen began her legal career in the early 1980s as a law firm secretary.
She hadn’t planned to be a lawyer. Or a judge.
“I just wanted to get married and have kids,” she recalled Tuesday during a luncheon of the Iowa Rotary Club in Manning.
But being part of that world led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology and later her law degree, which she earned from Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska.
She was a lawyer in Harlan for the better part of two decades before being appointed a district associate judge in 2007.
For eight years, she tended juvenile court cases, and in one of those she inadvertently scheduled a court hearing for a boy on his birthday.
“I have kids — birthdays are everything,” Christensen said. “And this kid had a terrible life. His parents were on meth. He was in a foster home. … I felt terrible, so I said, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry. What can I do for you? I like to bake. Can I bake you cookies?’ ”
The boy chose chocolate chip, and from that point forward, Christensen was careful about court hearings on birthdays.
She went one step further and offered cookies to the children she saw in juvenile court when their birthday was near.
“Monster cookies were always the No. 1 hit,” Christensen said. “It got to the point that lawyers would tell their clients to say, ‘Hey, it’s close to my birthday.’ ”
She was promoted to district court judge in 2015 and oversaw higher-level cases, including one of a Gray woman whose young grandchildren ingested her meth and almost died. Christensen sentenced the woman to up to 20 years in prison and had strong words for her in the sentencing hearing in April 2018.
“It appears that you vacillate in taking responsibility,” Christensen said before announcing the prison sentence for Samantha Bailey. “You acknowledged going back to meth after (the children ingested it). You continue to blame the prior attorney. You take very little responsibility for yourself.”
Now Christensen helps decide the most important court cases in the state. She is the third woman to be part of the seven-member Supreme Court.
And some of those cases are still about protecting children.