Why is Iowa's secretary of state playing politics with felon voting case?

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate is a defendant in Kelli Jo Griffin’s lawsuit claiming Iowa violates her constitutional rights by disenfranchising all felons. The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on March 30. Justices are expected to decide by the end of June whether to uphold the current system or declare that Iowa’s constitutional provision on "infamous crimes" should not apply to all felonies.

Defendants typically refrain from commenting on pending litigation, but during the past three weeks, Pate has carried out an extraordinary public effort to discredit the plaintiffs in the voting rights case. In his official capacity, he has addressed a large radio audience and authored an op-ed column run by many Iowa newspapers.

Pate amped up his attack on "the other side" in speeches at three of the four Iowa GOP district conventions on April 9. After misrepresenting the goals of Griffin’s allies and distorting how a ruling for the plaintiff could alter Iowa’s electorate, the secretary of state asked hundreds of Republican activists for their help in fighting against those consequences.

At a minimum, the secretary of state has used this lawsuit to boost his own standing. Even worse, his words could be aimed at intimidating the "unelected judges" who have yet to rule on the case. Regardless of Pate’s motives, his efforts to politicize a pending Supreme Court decision are disturbing.

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One Iowa House Republican's strange and lonely battle against marriage equality

Seven years have passed since the Iowa Supreme Court struck down our state’s Defense of Marriage Act. The Republican-controlled Iowa House failed to approve a constitutional amendment to overturn that court ruling more than three years ago. Fewer than a quarter of GOP state representatives were willing to co-sponsor the marriage amendment in 2015. Even if Iowa lawmakers tried to turn back the clock on marriage equality, the effort would be futile, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that all states must recognize marriages between same-sex couples.

Nevertheless, one Iowa House Republican won’t let this fight go. Today he seized on an unusual and futile way to register his discontent with the Iowa Supreme Court’s Varnum v Brien decision.

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Throwback Thursday: When state lawmakers chose not to change "infamous crime" to "felony" in the Iowa Constitution

A 2008 amendment to the Iowa Constitution became a matter of debate in Griffin v Pate, the major voting rights case before the Iowa Supreme Court. The amendment changed Article II, Section 5, which as adopted in 1857 read, "No idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, shall be entitled to the privilege of an elector." The same section now reads, "A person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector."

Two of the seven Supreme Court justices have previously held that when approving the 2008 constitutional amendment, the legislature "ratified its own existing interpretation of that provision under which infamous crime meant a felony." In its brief for the Iowa Supreme Court on behalf of defendants in Griffin, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office carried forward that claim: "By failing to alter the Infamous Crime Clause when other portions of Article II, section 5 were amended, the Legislature and the public ratified the definition of infamous crime as all felonies under state and federal law." During the March 30 Supreme Court hearing on Griffin v. Pate, Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson likewise argued "the simple answer here" is the 2008 constitutional amendment was "passed twice by the General Assembly, adopted by the people of Iowa, in the context of a legal system and historical cases and practices that said felonies are the line."

My curiosity piqued, I decided to look into the legislative intent behind the 2008 constitutional amendment. What I found does not support the view that Iowa lawmakers envisioned "infamous crime" as synonymous with "felony" or intended to ratify such an interpretation when voting to remove offensive language from the state constitution.

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Seven thoughts about the oral arguments in Iowa's major voting rights case

On March 30 the Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Griffin v. Pate, Iowa’s most important voting rights case in many years. The court had scheduled an hour for the hearing, twice as long as for most cases. Several of the attorneys went over the allotted time, as justices interrupted frequently with questions. You can watch the entire proceeding here, and it’s well worth an hour and eighteen minutes of your time. For summaries of the key points raised, read reports by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press or Grant Rodgers for the Des Moines Register. Radio Iowa’s Dar Danielson, Iowa Public Radio’s Sarah Boden, and Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich provided shorter takes.

I’m on record predicting at least four Iowa Supreme Court justices will determine that not all felonies rise to the level of "infamous crimes." That outcome would allow Kelli Jo Griffin and thousands of other Iowans to vote after completing their prison sentences or terms of probation or parole.

After what I heard Wednesday and watching the hearing again on YouTube, my gut feeling hasn’t changed, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see the majority go the other way. Almost certainly the decision will not be unanimous. Any comments about the Griffin case or felon disenfranchisement generally are welcome in this thread. I enclose below some of my takeaways from the oral arguments.

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Iowa county governments: Don't inconvenience us by protecting fundamental constitutional rights

The Iowa State Association of Counties has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to keep tens of thousands of citizens permanently disenfranchised so county auditors will have "a definition of infamous crime that can be easily discerned and quickly applied" as they administer elections.

In addition, the association representing county officials suggests auditors will be unable to provide "the orderly conduct of elections" if the high court does not abandon efforts to distinguish certain felonies from the "infamous crimes" that disqualify Iowans from voting under our state’s constitution.

The disturbing attempt by county governments to place administrative convenience above a fundamental constitutional right came in a "friend of the court" (amicus curiae) brief filed in connection with a case the Iowa Supreme Court will consider this week. Yet Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, the chief elections officer in Iowa’s largest county, maintains that a new standard allowing some felons to vote would not be "an administrative burden any more than the myriad other provisions that county auditors and poll-workers must contend with."

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Local government advocates concerned about Iowa Supreme Court ruling on open meetings

Advocacy groups representing local government bodies are concerned that the Iowa Supreme Court’s new decision on open meetings will make it difficult for elected officials to obtain information from staff and conduct business. On Friday, a divided court ruled that Warren County supervisors were not in compliance with Iowa law when they used a staffer as a go-between while working out a county downsizing plan behind closed doors. Writing for the majority of four, Justice David Wiggins argued that allowing such a scheme "would result in absurd consequences undermining the clear purpose of the open meetings law." He further explained that "open meetings requirements apply to all in-person gatherings at which there is deliberation upon any matter within the scope of the policy-making duties of a governmental body by a majority of its members, including in-person gatherings attended by members of a governmental body through agents or proxies."

Three justices dissented, seeing it as a job for state lawmakers "to redefine the requirements of the open meetings law" and warning that the court’s new standard "will have a chilling effect on well-intentioned public officials" who rely on information from staff when considering policy options.

The full text of the majority decision and dissents in Hutchison v Shull can be found here. Bleeding Heartland posted background on the case and highlights from the opinions here.

Justice Thomas Waterman’s dissent lamented the absence of "friend of the court" briefs from the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa League of Cities, and the Iowa Association of School Boards. I asked representatives of each organization to explain how their training for elected officials addresses Warren County-like methods to avoid discussing public policy in open meetings. I also sought comment on the Hutchison v Shull majority ruling and on the concerns Waterman raised.

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