8th District Judge Cynthia Danielson, of Mt. Pleasant, was awarded the 2019 Award of Merit from the Iowa Judges Association, the highest award given to an Iowa judge, which commemorates her on her dedication, skill, distinguished service and extraordinary effort for the betterment of the Iowa Judiciary.
Danielson was awarded the Award of Merit on June 10, at a ceremony in Des Moines. It came as a surprise to Danielson, who was collecting lunch tickets as District 5 Judge Michael Huppert launched into his speech about the Award of Merit, not mentioning Danielson’s name until halfway through.
Danielson was wandering around the room collecting lunch tickets when another judge told her firmly to go back to her seat. She sat down just in time to hear Huppert say her name.
“I didn’t even hear half the speech,” Danielson said with a laugh. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Danielson decided she wanted to be a lawyer as an eighth-grade student in Cedar Rapids. It was an era when girls didn’t aspire to become lawyers, and she isn’t quite sure how she got the idea in her head, she said.
Danielson said she was very fortunate to have a civics teacher who encouraged her dream and had her write a letter to the dean of a law school asking about how to get into law school and what the requirements were. She received a very nice letter back, which said they looked forward to receiving her law school application in a few years.
After graduating from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Danielson went to the University of Iowa. The first thing her adviser said to her was, “I’m sorry, girls don’t go to law school. If you’re interested in law, you should be a social studies teacher or a nurse.”
So, Danielson graduated in 1972 with a degree in secondary social studies teaching. Afterward, she realized she didn’t want to teach. She got a job at the University of Iowa processing student loans in the financial aid department.
That’s how she saw that there were women getting financial aid to attend law school, and figured it was time for her to take the LSATs and applied at the University of Iowa Law School.
“I’m not Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Danielson said. “There have been women who attended law school before me, but not any substantial numbers. My class was one of the first to have 20 women out of 200 (students). That made all the difference in the world that there were more than one or two of us.”
After graduating law school, Danielson returned to Cedar Rapids to work at a law firm, but she said it wasn’t what she intended to do. A close friend who worked at a firm in Mt. Pleasant convinced her to move there instead. They figured they weren’t making any money working at the law firms they were at then, so they might as well open their own.
They opened their law office in Mt. Pleasant in 1976, and had pretty good business, to Danielson’s surprise.
One of Danielson’s “elderly clients” said to her, “I don’t know why you’re surprised. You’re in rural Iowa. Women are out in the fields. They are equal partners in farming. It seems normal for us that a woman could be in that kind of a position.”
Looking back, Danielson recognizes that there were a lot of women in professional positions in Mt. Pleasant. She also finds it “quirky” that Belle Babb Mansfield was the first woman to take the bar exam right there in Mt. Pleasant.
Danielson was in private practice for 24 years before becoming a full-time judge in 1999. She applied five times for a judgeship.
Since then, Danielson has been appointed to several Supreme Court Commissions including the Child Support Guidelines Commission, the Iowa Supreme Court’s Grievance Commission and on the Task Force on Involuntary Hospitalization.
When Danielson first became a judge, she started seeing cases on guardianships and conservatorships and was stunned at how much money had disappeared from vulnerable people taken by the very people who were supposed to care for them.
“You had kids who couldn’t speak for themselves or the elderly who don’t want to say no to their children and the disabled who are not capable of handling their own affairs. Those people aren’t represented,” Danielson said.
Danielson also began working to change mental health commitment laws in the 1980s. Throughout it all, she said that Rep. Dave Heaton was “wonderful.”
Heaton called up Danielson asking her to explain how the system works. After they met, he made it his priority to try to change the system, adding safeguards and oversight for people who are involuntarily hospitalized.
“If you said someone needed to be hospitalized against their will, a patient advocate was appointed to represent them,” Danielson said. “That person’s job was to be their advocate, not their attorney, and make sure they didn’t fall through the cracks. That was big.”
Danielson said that a lot of things she accomplished over the last 20 years has unfortunately been reversed because of a lack of resources. For example, in the mental health system, if someone needs to be placed in a mental health facility there is no place for them.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said.
Danielson is also a past president of the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance and is currently a Senior Warden of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Pleasant.
On the day Danielson was sworn in as a judge in 1999, she received a dozen roses sent all the way from Arizona by the Civics teacher who mentored her when she was an eighth-grader in Cedar Rapids.
That’s mentoring, Danielson thought.
Mentoring other people is one of Danielson’s big goals. She always wants to encourage other people to follow their dreams, whether or not that dream is to go into law.
“I take that really seriously that people who, for whatever reason, don’t believe they could do this — they don’t have the money or background — all of those things are legitimate concerns, but you’re not going to know until you try,” Danielson said.