Iowa Judicial Branch Building

Des Moines, Iowa | C.2003

Photo Credit: DLR Group

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Although the Iowa Judicial Branch Building may not be the oldest marble hall in town, the branch’s history is stacked with stories that could fill up a library’s worth of bookshelves. At the center of one of those tales is a persistent person on a mission to pursue her dreams and prove that boys aren’t the only ones who should be able to “object” to things.

Arabella A. Mansfield was a studious young girl, born and raised on a family farm in Iowa. At a time when most women were not accepted in higher education, Arabella decided that she wasn’t done with her schooling. As the Civil War had taken many men out of their college lessons, universities were more accepting to prospective female students and Arabella found herself in attendance at Iowa Wesleyan University. 

A few years later, Arabella graduated as valedictorian of her class and after a brief stint as a college professor, shifted her vision to practicing law. She joined her brother’s firm in 1868, but the only problem was that women were not able to practice law during this time, as the bar exam was limited to “white males over the age of twenty one”. But Arabella was not one to let that stand in her way.

She circumvented the silly system, obtained an exam and passed with high marks – allowing her to challenge the state’s refusal of women practicing law. Shortly after, Iowa removed two extraneous words from its statute and became the first state in the Union to allow anyone to practice law, thereby officially making Arabella the first woman lawyer in the nation.

Although Arabella wasn’t around to see the Judicial Branch Building which opened in 2003, her story has opened its halls to women pursuing similar passions. Though still a fairly new addition to the skyline of Des Moines, lead architects at DLR Group wanted to make sure the building fit in with its counterparts. Small architectural details seen throughout the structure are references to its ornate neighbor, the Iowa State Capitol, and the murals of Columbia and Justice found throughout the courts, were once located on the ceiling of the old Iowa Supreme Court which found itself in flames in 1904. 

Today the five story structure remains the setting for Iowa Supreme Court cases, continuing to uphold the law, and following in Arabella’s footsteps to take some into question when needed.

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