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Brent Appel, former Iowa Supreme Court justice, joins Drake Law faculty

Photo Courtesy of Drake University

Brent Appel joined the staff of the Drake Law School this fall after a distinguished legal career. 

After 15 years on the Iowa Supreme Court, Appel’s tenure was coming to an end due to a statute that requires mandatory retirement at age 72. 

Appel said that when he considered what his next steps would be, he thought back to all the wonderful teachers he had and decided to give back to the community by becoming a professor. 

Appel grew up in Dubuque, Iowa. He then attended college at Stanford, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history before graduating with a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Appel said that initially, he was very interested in teaching and even considered making it his full time job, but with the scarcity of teaching jobs at that time, he decided to go to law school instead. 

“I had some great writing teachers when I was in law school,” Appel said. “I remember their critiques, they were direct and tough and taught everyone to write with care and precision, and I hope to pass that on to my students.”

Appel had a few jobs in the Palo Alto area before becoming a street clerk for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a federal court with appellate jurisdiction that hears appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. A law clerk’s responsibilities include conducting research, writing bench memos, orders and opinions and assisting the judge during courtroom proceedings. 

After about 10 years, Appel returned to Iowa, where he was appointed first assistant attorney general of Iowa in 1979 and then became the deputy attorney general in 1983. The role of an attorney general is to make legal decisions that guide legal officials in applying law. Their opinions can be requested by state officials about legal principles or laws that are inconsistent. Appel then served as the attorney general for Iowa and gave opinions on numerous legal matters. 

During his time as attorney general, Appel argued four cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. In Herwig v. Ray, Appel represented Governor Ray, arguing about the time limits placed on states to consider finances in Medicaid for institutionalized spouses.

 Appel was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court by Governor Tom Vilsack. While at the court, the judge chaired the Access to Justice Commission, which aims to remove barriers Iowans may find to accessing the justice system, whether they be financial, technological or cultural. 

With the addition of Brent Appel, Drake Law now has three judges within its programs. Jerry Anderson, Dean of Drake Law, said that having judges in the classroom helps students learn how to be more persuasive. 

“They can talk about the process of how judges make up their minds and help the students understand that if you’re going to succeed, you’re going to have to craft your argument in a particular way that will be persuasive to that judge,” Anderson said. “As a member of the Supreme Court, he (Appel) was making the law, so he’s not only a person who understands from the perspective of a lawyer, he understands why the court decided to make the law a particular way, so he can talk about not only this is what the why is, but that this is why it’s the way it is.” 

In his career, Appel also published numerous law reviews about the impact of cases or legal issues. Some of the publications center around the cases he argued before the Supreme Court of the United States and the impact those cases had. 

After retiring from the Iowa Supreme Court, Appel chose to teach at Drake primarily for its law school and renowned clinical program. 

“I regard Drake as a wonderful institution. It’s a great place for students to expand their horizons,” Appel said. “Drake works diligently with the community as well. And it’s a real asset. It’s a privilege for me to be teaching students.” At Drake, Appel is currently teaching a class on Professional Responsibility, which teaches students the larger role of lawyers in society and their ethical responsibility. He is also teaching a course in constitutional state law, which has an attached lab. Both classes are available for the 2023 spring semester. 

Appel said he loves teaching these courses, but he is open to teaching other courses in the future. According to Appel, he wishes to teach Drake Law students curiosity, diligence, open-mindedness and discipline, as those are all characteristics of a good lawyer. 

“Our democracy depends upon good lawyers to keep it in good running order. We don’t have a huge government bureaucracy telling people how to comply with the laws, so then we rely on a very decentralized system of lawyers,” Appel said. “And they are essential if the rule of law is to be part of our culture.”

Anderson expressed how enthusiastic Appel has been about conveying his wealth of knowledge to aspiring lawyers and what a privilege it is to have him at Drake Law. 

“We’re just thrilled to have him on board. He brings such a wealth of experience not only as a member of the Iowa Supreme Court but also in his career before that, so he’s had such a wide variety of experiences to bring with him into the classroom,” Anderson said. “I speak for the law school and I can say we’re really, really proud to have him on the faculty because very few law schools are going to have a judge of his caliber teaching their students.” 

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