Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
FAIRFIELD — Fairfield attorney John Morrissey reached a milestone this summer when he completed 50 years of practicing law.
To celebrate his half century in the legal profession, a party was thrown in Morrissey’s honor June 29 at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center. Friends and colleagues thanked Morrissey for his dedicated service to the city, county and to the numerous boards he has served on during the past 50 years. Morrissey even helped to incorporate a couple of organizations in the 1970s that have had an enormous impact on the community, the Greater Jefferson County Foundation in 1975 and Fairfield Economic Development Association two years later.
The June event was not a retirement party, since Morrissey has every intention of adding to those 50 years of service as he continues his private practice on North Court Street and in his role as Fairfield city attorney, a position he’s held since 1991. Morrissey also is the city attorney for Birmingham, and has been city attorney for other neighboring towns such as Keosauqua, Pleasant Plain, Stockport and Packwood.
John served as Jefferson County attorney during two stretches from 1982-1987 and again from 1994-1999, when the county was going through a tumultuous period precipitated by the former county attorney leaving. The county was dealing with a number of issues like a zoning proposal that was ultimately defeated, the development of Maharishi Vedic City and the creation of the Highway 34 bypass south of Fairfield.
Morrissey grew up in Waterloo. His dad was the descendant of Irish immigrants who came to America in the midst of the Irish potato Famine in the 1840s and 1850s. During World War II, his dad worked as a Navy construction truck driver who helped restore Pearl Harbor after it was bombed.
John was a shy boy who liked the arts. He was in the drama club, but he was more comfortable building the stage than acting on it. He created the covers for the brochures advertising the school play, and thought that one day he would become an art teacher. In fact, he still loves art to this day, and has passed on that passion to his sons.
Morrissey attended the University of Northern Iowa intending to obtain an education certificate. One of his professors, a speech coach, told John he’d fit in on the college’s debate team, remarking, “I notice you like to argue.” The professor was right. Morrissey thrived on the debate team, and was its president for two years during which the team competed at nationals.
Morrissey noted there are parallels between debate and the work of an attorney. Both require an ability to think on one’s feet and be ready to say something smart.
“It’s a great training ground,” Morrissey said.
In his junior year of college, a freak accident nearly cost Morrissey his life. While participating in homecoming festivities, Morrissey was riding on the back of a homecoming float that featured a giant Panther made of chicken wire and paper. The float went off the road and tossed the giant Panther on top of Morrissey, who landed in a ditch. Morrissey suffered a massive injury to his scalp and spent three weeks in the hospital.
The irony of his hospital stay is that, instead of derailing his studies, it actually helped Morrissey focus. With nothing else to do, Morrissey was able to study hard for his midterms, which he aced.
At this point in his college career, Morrissey was contemplating a master’s degree so he could teach art at the collegiate level. A friend of his in student government saw the success John was having on the debate team and gave him a copy of the LSAT, the law school admission test. Morrissey took the LSAT and got a good score. Friends and family encouraged him to pursue law school.
“I talked to my cousin, my folks and my adviser, and they told me I could really do this,” Morrissey said.
After graduating from UNI with a degree in history prelaw, Morrissey got his law degree from the University in Iowa City. While in law school, Morrissey had a part-time job at a legal aid clinic in the Quad Cities, and spent a summer in his native Black Hawk County working in legal services, too. He thoroughly enjoyed this hands-on learning.
Indian Legal Services
Morrissey graduated from law school at a moment when there were major changes to civil rights. Among those was the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, affecting how the U.S. Bill of Rights would apply to Native American reservations, which interested Morrissey. He got a job as a federal defender for South Dakota Indian Legal Services, an experience that opened his eyes to another way of life.
“It flipped a switch on my understanding of affirmative action and what it means to be a minority because there, I was a minority,” Morrissey said.
Morrissey lived in the town of Eagle Butte, and worked with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Standing Rock Tribe to establish a new tribal jail and court, and to train tribal judges, investigators, prosecutors and more. He also helped the tribe write grants and found a youth group home on the reservation.
Move to Fairfield
When Morrissey’s 32-month contract with Indian Legal Services was up, he opted not to renew it. Life in Eagle Butte was getting “testy.” A few friends had been the victims of violent crime, and some locals were unhappy at how many professional jobs were going to non-American Indians. Morrissey was ready for a change of scenery, and bought a house in Des Moines where he would work for Iowa Legal Services Corporation.
However, more problems awaited him. Morrissey said then U.S. President Richard Nixon did not like legal reform services and halted funding for them, putting Morrissey’s job in jeopardy. One of Morrissey’s good friends from law school, Ed Kelly, reached out to tell him there might be a job for Morrissey in Fairfield. Morrissey had come to Fairfield a few times to visit Kelly, who moved here to fill the vacant county attorney position. Kelly told Morrissey he could write a grant to become Kelly’s assistant county attorney, and that’s what he did.
Morrissey moved to Fairfield in 1973, working as assistant county attorney and in private practice with Kelly. John said his first year here was “rocky,” but he was happy to be earning as much as he did on the reservation. Morrissey went on to work as a county prosecutor for 18 years.
Kelly remained county attorney until 1982, when Morrissey won election to the office. He served one term, then went back to focusing on his private practice with Kelly. Kelly ran for the state’s attorney general position in 1990. Morrissey campaigned for Kelly, despite Kelly being a Republican and Morrissey a Democrat. John said their friendship was stronger than their political differences.
Morrissey won election to be county attorney again in 1994, and by then he was also Fairfield’s City Attorney, an appointment he received in 1991. John said he’s enjoyed working with the city council and the town’s three mayors during that time: Bob Rasmussen, Ed Malloy and most recently Connie Boyer.
Among the most significant developments during Morrissey’s tenure as city attorney have been the construction of the Jefferson County Law Center in 1999, and the ongoing upgrades to the town’s sewer system. Morrissey said the city’s sewer plant was once inundated with stormwater after a rain, which “blew the lids off manholes.” The Iowa Department of Natural Resources threatened to fine the city $10,000 per day if it didn’t fix the problem. Morrissey said he’s proud of the steps the city has taken to stop the infiltration.
Morrissey played an essential role in establishing the Greater Jefferson County Foundation in 1975. When Morrissey moved here in the early 1970s, there were only a few foundations in town, one of which was the Bethany Foundation. Morrissey had some experience with nonprofits on the reservation, so he and a man named Scott Jordan started the Community Fund, the town’s first attempt at a community foundation and a precursor to the Greater Jefferson County Foundation. The Community Fund raised money for projects such as the outdoor swimming pool.
Morrissey said their vision was to create a foundation similar to the one in Van Buren County called the Roberts Foundation, which gave away the interest earned on its endowment to community betterment projects. He and Kelly bought the Bethany Home north of what is now the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, and rolled money from the Bethany Foundation into the newly formed Greater Jefferson County Foundation. Today, the Greater Jefferson County Foundation has $7.5 and awards hundreds of thousands of dollars to charitable causes and community groups every year.
Morrissey helped organize and incorporate the Fairfield Economic Development Association in 1977. He’s proud of having a hand in numerous FEDA projects through the years such as establishing the West Acres Industrial Park, the transition of South Gate into a senior housing park, helping developers use tax increment financing, and much more.
Apart from those two, Morrissey played a key role in organizing the Fairfield Park and Recreation Foundation and Carnegie Museum Foundation. He has held leadership positions in Lions Club of Fairfield, Knights of Columbus, the Jefferson County Bar Association, and the Iowa State Bar Association, just to name a few. In March 2003, Morrissey received a surprise when he was named one of the two Citizens of the Year at the Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet.