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Judiciary

District Court upholds Iowa rule banning "telemedicine" abortions

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 22:46:10 PM CDT

A Polk County District Court today upheld a rule adopted by the Iowa Board of Medicine last year, which would prohibit Planned Parenthood of the Heartland from providing medical abortions using "telemedicine" (where a doctor meets with the patient via videoconferencing). You can read the full text of Judge Jeffrey Farrell's ruling here. After the jump I've summarized Judge Farrell's key findings, including background on the case and excerpts from his decision. I've also enclosed reaction from both sides in the telemedicine abortion debate, as well as from Governor Terry Branstad and Democratic challenger Jack Hatch.

Judge Farrell's ruling goes into effect in 30 days, but Planned Parenthood has already said it will appeal, so the Iowa Supreme Court may put another stay on the rule pending its hearing of the case.

I'm surprised by this ruling. In a November 2013 decision granting Planned Parenthood's request for a stay of the rule, Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano sounded skeptical that rule would be upheld when courts considered the merits. She noted the lack of evidence of any adverse outcomes in more than 5,000 abortions using Planned Parenthood's telemedicine system, the "peculiar" fact that the Board of Medicine required an in-person meeting between a patient and doctor for abortion services, but not for other telemedicine practices, and the likelihood that denying rural women access to medical abortion would increase demand for "surgical abortion, which is much more invasive and risky." UPDATE: In the comments, Bleeding Heartland reader ahawby notes several factors that could have influenced Judge Farrell's perspective on this case.

Today's decision is a victory for opponents of abortion rights, because Iowa women in small towns and rural areas will face more hurdles to obtain abortions early in pregnancy. It's also a personal triumph for Branstad's legal counsel, Brenna Findley. As Judge Farrell's ruling acknowledges, Findley was a vocal advocate of the rulemaking, urging the Board of Medicine to act quickly on the petition from pro-life activists, against the advice of the board's own legal counsel as well as the Iowa Attorney General's office.

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Three reasons Rick Perry's indictment will help him with Iowa Republicans

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Aug 19, 2014 at 10:54:25 AM CDT

Being charged with a crime is rarely good news for any public figure, but it looks like Texas Governor Rick Perry will be the exception that proves the rule.

Not only will his presidential aspirations survive the criminal case launched against him last last week, the governor's prosecution will improve his standing among Iowa Republicans, for three reasons.

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Terry Branstad's misguided view of fighting for Iowa agriculture

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Aug 12, 2014 at 10:09:07 AM CDT

Speaking to a small crowd at the Iowa State Fair yesterday, Governor Terry Branstad said he was "proud as governor to have stood up for and fought for the interests of agriculture." You can watch the video on the Des Moines Register's website and read highlights in O.Kay Henderson's report for Radio Iowa or Jason Noble's summary for the Register:

He described his defense of Beef Products Inc. and its lean finely textured beef against charges that it was unhealthy "pink slime"; his support for wind energy; his efforts to maintain the current renewable fuel standard for ethanol content in gasoline; and his opposition to California chicken cage standards that could harm Iowa egg producers.

Branstad certainly was a vocal advocate for "pink slime," even depicting the product as some kind of superior health food. He's eager to defend one company's use of methods many consumers find repulsive, but I doubt the Terrace Hill chef is serving him many meals containing lean finely-textured beef.

Renewable energy advocates in Iowa would not characterize Branstad as a champion for wind. I've never heard of him lifting a finger to support "distributed generation" policies, which would benefit a much broader group of farmers and landowners than the large wind farms now dotting rural Iowa.

True, the governor has argued strenuously for maintaining the Renewable Fuels Standard, contradicting his usual stance against "big government regulations" and federal mandates. However, it's debatable whether the RFS is as important to Iowa's economy as some interest groups claim.

Branstad can pander all he wants about "the State of California with its wacky ideas," but the lawsuit he joined on behalf of Iowa is lacking in logic and unlikely to overturn California's egg law. It's also ironic that a governor who claims to oppose "activist judges" is pinning his hopes on them in this case and in another lawsuit challenging a different California law.

Meanwhile, Branstad has either done nothing or actively impeded solutions on several issues that pose an enormous threat to Iowa agriculture. We're losing world-class topsoil at an alarming rate, diminishing the future productivity of our land. Yet Branstad vetoed millions of dollars this year for Iowa watershed and land stewardship projects. Nor has he ever proposed funding the Natural Resources Trust Fund, which Iowa voters approved four years ago.

"Superweeds" resistant to the most prevalent herbicides are spreading across Iowa. Branstad has never advocated for or promoted more sustainable farming methods, which could address the weed problem more effectively than dumping more toxic chemicals on the land. Incidentally, Big Ag's preferred approach to battling superweeds could could put a lot of Iowa vineyards and fruit growers out of business--never mind the potential risks to human health.

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Weekend open thread: Crime and punishment edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Aug 09, 2014 at 20:58:44 PM CDT

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread.

Late last week, a Virginia medical examiner determined that James Brady's recent death was a homicide, stemming from John Hinckley's attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. I would be interested to hear from readers more familiar with the criminal justice system about precedent for charging someone with murder when more than three decades elapsed between the fatal wound and the victim's death. The U.S. Attorney's office had no comment other than to say that they are reviewing the coroner's report. If prosecutors charge Hinckley with murder, they could get around double jeopardy questions, as Hinckley was never tried for murder before. But since his previous trial ended in a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, it seems that it would be quite difficult for prosecutors to convince a jury that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of killing Brady.

In one of the last decisions announced from the term that just ended, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled a few weeks ago in State v Lyle that mandatory sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. You can read the majority ruling and two dissents here. The majority ruling built on but went far beyond a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated mandatory sentences of life without parole for convicted killers who were juveniles at the time of the crime. Writing for the 4-3 majority, Chief Justice Mark Cady extended reasoning from three Iowa Supreme Court decisions last year related to juvenile sentencing. Cady is not afraid to be ahead of the curve here. I expect that over the next decade, other courts will take into account the growing body of research on the adolescent brain, and this ruling will be viewed as a harbinger rather than an overreach. Justices David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht, and Brent Appel joined the majority.

In dissent, Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager argued that the court went too far in the current ruling as well as in the previous juvenile sentencing cases. They held that a seven-year mandatory minimum was not "cruel and unusual punishment" for a violent criminal who happened to be 17 years old at the time of the crime. Justice Edward Mansfield joined both dissents. It's worth noting that the majority opinion didn't say a juvenile couldn't be sentenced to a long prison term--only that a judge must take into account individual circumstances and current knowledge of adolescent brain development when determining a sentence.

Side note: Governor Terry Branstad appeared not to understand this Iowa Supreme Court ruling, or perhaps he deliberately attempted to mislead the public about its implications. Speaking to reporters last month, the governor implied that juveniles who commit violent crimes will now have to be released at age 18. Not at all. The Iowa Supreme Court majority did not hold that juveniles could never be tried as adults, or that juveniles could not be sentenced to long prison terms. Judges simply can't apply to juveniles mandatory formulas designed for adults who committed violent crimes.

Earlier this summer, I never managed to write a post about the idiot "open carry activists" who were hell-bent on walking into chain stores and restaurants heavily armed. Even the National Rifle Association characterized the movement as having "crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness"--though the NRA wimps soon apologized for offending Open Carry Texas. Thankfully, I haven't encountered this phenomenon in Iowa, but if I see a person or group of people walking heavily armed into a store or restaurant, I will clear out immediately. There's no way to tell whether someone carrying a semiautomatic weapon is an open carry activist or a psychopath about to go on a killing spree, and I wouldn't hang around to find out. This philosophy professor had it exactly right when he pointed out that open carry enthusiasts are different from people who carry concealed weapons: "Those who conceal their guns are ready for trouble, but open-carry activists are looking for it. In general, I don't trust anyone who is looking for trouble."

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Terry Branstad's vendetta against Chris Godfrey looks even dumber

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Aug 05, 2014 at 11:15:47 AM CDT

Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey submitted his resignation to Governor Terry Branstad yesterday in order to become chief judge of the Employee's Compensation Appeal Board in Washington, D.C. later this month. I haven't seen any official reaction from the Branstad administration. The governor has been trying to get rid of Godfrey since late 2010, even though the Iowa Senate had unanimously confirmed him to a fixed term as Workers' Compensation Commissioner until 2015. During the summer of 2011, Branstad docked Godfrey's pay after sending his chief of staff and legal counsel to demand his resignation one more time. The governor couldn't articulate any reason for being dissatisfied with Godfrey, other than saying, "business groups in Iowa [...] told me in no uncertain terms that they were not happy with the direction under Mr. Godfrey." Branstad staffers publicly criticized Godfrey's work, which along with the pay reduction and pressure to resign led to a defamation and discrimination lawsuit against the state of Iowa and six senior officials, including Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds.

Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Godfrey can sue individual officials as well as the State of Iowa for defamation, extortion and other claims. Yesterday, Godfrey's attorney Roxanne Conlin confirmed that the lawsuit will move forward. I've posted her comments below, along with reaction from Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jack Hatch. Polk County District Court Judge Arthur Gamble told attorneys last week that a firm trial date will be set for sometime in 2015. Depositions are only just beginning in a case that has already cost the state of Iowa more than $500,000 in legal fees.

If Godfrey weren't doing his job well, he would not have been offered a more senior and prestigious position in the same line of work. I don't know whether Branstad wanted to get rid of him because Godfrey is openly gay, as the lawsuit alleges, or because the governor was taking marching orders from business groups. Either way, the governor never should have bullied and badgered this highly capable person, and the state should have settled this lawsuit a long time ago.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Has any Iowa governor ever hired a worse legal counsel than Brenna Findley? She's supposed to steer her boss away from legal problems, not provide fodder for a lawsuit. Nor is this case her only misstep. Last summer, Findley contradicted legal advice from the Iowa Attorney General's office and the attorney for the Iowa Board of Medicine, encouraging that board to move forward with abortion restrictions that have been temporarily blocked and will probably be struck down in a separate lawsuit.

UPDATE: Todd Dorman hits on the most disturbing aspect of this "saga": "Truth is, governors have the power to make dozens and dozens of powerful appointments. The fact that Branstad would go to these lengths to get his hands on one job that eluded his grasp tells you quite a bit about how he views the limits of executive power. After nearly 20 years, he doesn't see any."

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Hopeless lawsuit only adds to Cedar Rapids' opportunity costs

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jul 25, 2014 at 10:07:30 AM CDT

Cedar Rapids movers and shakers should be pursuing alternative plans for a prime downtown location rejected for a casino license in April. Instead, city leaders have vowed to find a legislative path to their casino dream. Now a former Linn County attorney hopes a court will throw out the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission's decision. Rick Smith reports for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

[Eugene] Kopecky filed a lawsuit this week in Linn County District Court against the commission and the four of five commission members who voted April 17 to deny a state gaming license to casino investor group Cedar Rapids Development Group LLC.

Kopecky, who has practiced law in Cedar Rapids since 1966, said Thursday that his lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment. He said he wants the court to instruct the commission on the state's gaming law in a way that would require the commission to revisit the Cedar Rapids casino application and grant a state gaming license.

Kopecky said the state's gaming law requires voters in a county to approve gaming before a casino is permitted to operate. [...]

He said state law doesn't give the state commission the ability to deny a casino license in one county based on a license in another county, he said.

The fact that voters must approve a plan before a casino can be licensed does not imply that the commission must approve every application for a casino license where a referendum has passed. The Racing and Gaming Commission has denied some two dozen gambling licenses in its 30-year history. There is ample precedent for the commission denying a license based on concerns a new casino would largely cannibalize from existing ones. I've seen no evidence that state legislators thought commissioners were exceeding their authority in those cases. I'm not an attorney, but I would be shocked if a court agreed with Kopecky's interpretation of Iowa statute.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett commented yesterday that he supports the lawsuit. For his part, Kopecky "said his lawsuit could take more than two years to make its way through the Iowa court system if a decision in Linn County District Court is appealed."

What a shame to waste so much time on a Hail-Mary pass, when Cedar Rapids could be considering other development plans for the downtown space. Richard Florida, a leading expert on urban land use, has written that "urbanists across the ideological spectrum are unanimous" about one thing: "building casinos, especially in an already thriving downtown, is a truly terrible idea."  

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Supreme Court ruling will speed up small solar projects in Iowa

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jul 14, 2014 at 11:42:57 AM CDT

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday affirmed a lower court ruling that will make it easier for small-scale solar projects to move forward in Iowa. The up-front cost of installing solar panels has long been a barrier to unlocking Iowa's huge potential to generate solar power. Now municipalities, home or business owners will be able to have solar panels installed through a "third-party power purchase agreement," whereby they pay for the electricity generated after installation.

Follow me after the jump for background on this case, key points from the majority ruling, and reaction to the decision. Advocates for solar power in Iowa and elsewhere are enthusiastic about the potential for more small-scale renewable energy projects (sometimes called "distributed generation"). Utility companies are warning that the ruling will drive up electricity costs.  

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Iowa Supreme Court rejects Farm Bureau's effort to nullify clean water rules (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Jul 11, 2014 at 18:08:12 PM CDT

In a 4-3 split decision, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed today a Polk County District Court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit seeking to nullify new state water quality rules.

The environmental community and groups representing big agribusiness have closely watched this case for years, because the "antidegradation" rules are an important step toward bringing Iowa into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Had this lawsuit succeeded, no strong water quality rules would have seen the light of day for the forseeable future in Iowa, because Governor Terry Branstad has packed the State Environmental Protection Commission with advocates for agribusiness.

Follow me after the jump for more background on the case and details about today's decision.

UPDATE: Added reaction from the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Environmental Council below. If there's a more hypocritical statewide organization than the Farm Bureau, I can't think what it could be.

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Iowa Supreme Court's first landmark ruling is 175 years old

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jul 07, 2014 at 17:04:29 PM CDT

While checking for new Iowa Supreme Court rulings, I saw on the court's official website that July 4 marked an important anniversary in Iowa judicial history. On that date in 1839, the territorial high court handed down its first ruling, which is still one of its most noteworthy opinions. "In the Matter of Ralph," the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a slave-owner from Missouri could not enforce a contract that would have required his former slave Ralph to return from Iowa to servitude. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Charles Mason acknowledged Ralph's monetary debt but held that "no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery"

and that Montgomery had lost his right over Ralph in Iowa. The justices wrote, "When, in seeking to accomplish his object, he illegally restrains a human being of his liberty, it is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition. We think, therefore, that [Ralph] should be discharged from all custody and constraint, and be permitted to go free while he remains under the protection of our laws."

The Iowa Supreme Court's current Chief Justice Mark Cady has hailed the importance of that ruling, which "declared equality for all people, regardless of skin color, in a very powerful way."

Amazingly, just 53 years ago today, civil rights activist John Lewis (now a member of Congress from Georgia) was released from prison after being jailed for more than a month. His "crime" had been to use a "white" restroom in the state of Mississippi.  

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Iowa reaction to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jun 30, 2014 at 13:23:00 PM CDT

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today in favor of Hobby Lobby's right not to provide contraception coverage in its health insurance package for employees. The Obama administration had already exempted some religious organizations and non-profits from the contraception mandate in the 2010 health care reform law. Today's ruling allows a closely-held (that is, not publicly traded) for-profit corporation to claim religious rights that override the rights of their employees, not to mention the need to comply with federal law.

You can read the full text of the Supreme Court's decision and dissents here (pdf). Justice Samuel Alito wrote the "opinion of the court," joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy. Strangely, Kennedy wrote a separate concurring opinion "in an attempt to show how narrow the Court's decision was." Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer dissented. The majority ruling appears to apply only to contraception health care services, as opposed to other medical procedures to which some groups have religious objections (such as vaccinations or blood transfusions). Still, Ginsburg seems on track when she warns that the court "has ventured into a minefield" by "approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation." Analyzing today's decision, Lyle Denniston predicted more litigation will be needed to clarify the limits of the new religious exemption for closely-held companies.

For background on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case (formerly Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius) and the implications of the ruling, check the Alliance for Justice and SCOTUSblog websites.

After the jump I've posted comments from various Iowa elected officials and candidates. So far Iowa Democrats have been quicker to respond to the Hobby Lobby ruling than Republicans. I will update this post as needed.

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Supreme Court strikes down Obama recess appointments

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 13:45:00 PM CDT

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled today that President Barack Obama violated the Constitution by making recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012, when the U.S. Senate was technically in session. The Congressional Research Service produced an excellent backgrounder on the legal issues surrounding that set of appointments. You can find today's opinions here (pdf). Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded, "For purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says that it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business." The Obama administration had argued that the Senate was for all practical purposes in recess on January 4, 2012, since no real business is conducted during pro-forma sessions a few minutes long every three days. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in the majority opinion.

Today's ruling is less far-reaching than it could have been; Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion concurring in judgment only would have much more severely restricted presidential powers to make recess appointments. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined that opinion.

Since the Senate changed its rules last year to make it much more difficult for the minority to block presidential appointees, Obama has less reason to resort to recess appointments. But that could change if Republicans gain a Senate majority after this November's elections.

Iowa's senior Senator Chuck Grassley hailed today's ruling in a Senate floor speech that I've posted below. I haven't seen any official comment from Senator Tom Harkin. He is among those who supported the president's recess appointments, citing "unprecedented abuses of process" by Senate Republicans who sought to prevent the National Labor Relations Board from operating by refusing to confirm any nominee.

UPDATE: Added a few points Lyle Denniston raised below.

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Supreme Court strikes down Massachusetts law on buffer zones around abortion clinics

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 12:09:21 PM CDT

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Missouri law establishing a 300-foot buffer zone around funerals, and has upheld some state laws creating buffer zones around abortion clinics. But today, all nine justices found that a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. You can find the full texts of the majority opinion and two concurrences in McCullen et al v Coakley here (pdf).

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. The ruling found that although the Massachusetts law was not attempting to regulate speech based on content, "The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth's asserted inter­ests," which "include ensuring public safety outside abortion clinics, preventing harassment and intimidation of patients and clinic staff, and combating deliberate obstruction of clinic entrances."

There is a long history of intimidating and sometimes violent protests outside Massachusetts abortion clinics. But the majority rejected state officials' contention that the 2007 law was needed because a previous, less restrictive buffer zone law had not worked. The court argued that a more narrowly-tailored approach, stepping up law enforcement around the Boston clinic with the most problems, could achieve the same end without restricting protesters' free speech in public areas.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, concurring in judgment only. He would have thrown out the law because it regulates speech in a "content-based" manner and can't survive the "strict scrutiny" standard which "requires that a regulation represent "the least restrictive means" of furthering "a compelling Gov­ernment interest." Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate opinion concurring in judgment. He would throw out the state law because it "discriminates based on viewpoint. Speech in favor of the clinic and its work by employees and agents is permitted; speech criticizing the clinic and its work is a crime."  

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Police need a warrant to search your cell phone

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 13:13:00 PM CDT

In what may become one of this year's most far-reaching court rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that a right to privacy applies to cell phones, and that law enforcement cannot inspect the contents of cell phones without a search warrant. Chief Justice John Roberts, one of the high court's five conservatives, wrote the opinion, which you can read in full here. Good summaries include David Savage's report for the Los Angeles Times, Adam Liptak's report for the New York Times, and this SCOTUSblog analysis by Lyle Denniston:

The Court rejected every argument made to it by prosecutors and police that officers should be free to inspect the contents of any cellphone taken from an arrestee.  It left open just one option for such searches without a court order:  if police are facing a dire emergency, such as trying to locate a missing child or heading off a terrorist plot.  But even then, it ruled, those "exigent" exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant would have to satisfy a judge after the fact.

The ruling was such a sweeping embrace of digital privacy that it even reached remotely stored private information that can be reached by a hand-held device - as in the modern-day data storage "cloud."  And it implied that the tracking data that a cellphone may contain about the places that an individual visited also is entitled to the same shield of privacy.

I'm not surprised by the decision, but I'm surprised it was unanimous. It's a very strong statement that police need to change their standard practices after arresting suspects will have to change.

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Harkin recommends O'Brien, Romano, Klinefeldt for federal judgeships

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Jun 24, 2014 at 15:09:31 PM CDT

Two federal judges in Iowa plan to retire next year, and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin has recommended that President Barack Obama choose among three possible replacements. Cedar Rapids-based attorney Dave O'Brien is Harkin's choice to replace U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett, who presides in Sioux City. O'Brien finished fifth in the Democratic primary to represent Iowa's first Congressional district. I've posted background on his legal credentials after the jump.

Harkin suggested two possible nominees for the position to be vacated by James Gritzner, chief district judge for Iowa's Southern District: Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano and Nick Klinefeldt, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. A former prosecutor in Polk County, Romano became an Iowa District Associate judge in 1996 and a District Court judge in 2001. She has been on Harkin's short list before, and I've posted more background on her after the jump.

I hope Obama chooses Romano to fill this vacancy, as she has much more relevant experience than Klinefeldt. On Harkin's recommendation, Obama appointed Klinefeldt to be U.S. attorney in 2009. The Senate confirmed him to that position about four and a half years ago. His official bio is below as well.

Romano was in the news last November after her ruling put a temporary stay on the Iowa Board of Medicine's rule banning the use of telemedicine to provide abortion drugs to Iowa women. Social conservatives including Bob Vander Plaats' FAMiLY Leader organization threw a fit, but I have little doubt that the state board's rule will not stand up in court when Planned Parenthood's lawsuit is heard on the merits.

Ryan Foley of the Associated Press observed, "It is unusual for Iowa, a state that only has five active district judges, to have two pending vacancies for the lifetime judicial positions at the same time."

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Muscatine residents will get day in court against major air polluter

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jun 16, 2014 at 12:33:08 PM CDT

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday that a District Court should hear a lawsuit eight Muscatine residents have filed against the Grain Processing Corporation. Muscatine locals have long had to breathe some of Iowa's dirtiest air, and the Grain Processing Corporation has long been one of the area's major polluters. Despite being forced to pay a $538,000 civil penalty for air pollution violations eight years ago, the corporation continued to emit excessive amounts, leading to a lawsuit by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller in 2011. Earlier this year, the company settled that lawsuit, agreeing to pay a $1.5 million civil penalty and to take several steps to reduce toxic emissions from the facility.

But the Grain Processing Corporation stood and fought when local residents filed a class-action lawsuit two years ago, citing health risks as well as damage to personal property related to the air pollution near the plant.

In 2013, a District Court judge granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the case, prompting plaintiffs to appeal. The Iowa Supreme Court found that the Grain Processing Corporation "was not entitled to summary judgment" and sent the case back to District Court, which will consider the lawsuit on its merits. You can read the full text of Justice Brent Appel's ruling here (pdf). (It's more than 60 pages long and gets into some technical legal issues.) All the other Iowa Superme Court justices concurred, except for Justice Edward Mansfield, who recused himself because some of his former law partners were representing the corporation.

After the jump I've posted more background on the lawsuit and excerpts from Jason Liegois' report for the Muscatine Journal on the Iowa Supreme Court ruling. The plaintiffs are not guaranteed to succeed in District Court, but at least they can present their case. In addition to fighting the lawsuit at the lower court level in Iowa, the Grain Processing Corporation could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the federal Clean Air Act preempts claims like the ones the Muscatine residents are making.

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Iowa Supreme Court allows lawsuit to proceed against Branstad and key officials (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Jun 09, 2014 at 09:57:21 AM CDT

In a 5-2 split decision, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday that a District Court judge should determine whether Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey can sue Governor Terry Branstad and five other administration officials individually for defamation, extortion and other claims. Follow me after the jump for background, links and details about the opinion.  
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Iowa Supreme Court dismisses defamation case based on 2010 political ad

by: desmoinesdem

Fri May 16, 2014 at 11:38:27 AM CDT

Today the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a defamation case filed by Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand over a 2010 negative television ad. You can read the full ruling here (pdf). I've posted a few excerpts below.

The Iowa Democratic Party ran the ad on behalf of Democratic candidate Rick Mullin shortly before the 2010 general election. Bertrand immediately filed a defamation lawsuit, in what I assumed was a stunt to change the media narrative. However, he pursued the case after winning the Iowa Senate race. In 2012, a jury decided in favor of Bertrand and awarded him $231,000 in damages. Later, a district court judge reduced the damages to $50,000 but determined that the tv ad constituted "implied libel." The judge concluded that several statements in the commercial, though technically accurate, created a misleading impression about Bertrand. Both sides appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party asked the justices to overturn the original verdict, while Bertrand defended his libel claim and objected to the damages being reduced.

I always expected the verdict to be overturned on appeal, because of extensive case law supporting strong protections for political campaign speech, as well as a high bar for any public figure claiming defamation (libel or slander).

Chief Justice Mark Cady cited many judicial opinions in his ruling, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman, Daryl Hecht, Bruce Zager, and David Wiggins. Justices Edward Mansfield and Brent Appel recused themselves from this case for reasons Bleeding Heartland discussed here. During the oral arguments in January, some observers thought Waterman sounded sympathetic to Bertrand's attorney--which goes to show comments made during oral arguments don't necessarily reflect the way a judge will decide a case.

This morning, Bertrand told the Des Moines Register, "The Iowa Supreme Court failed the people of Iowa and they failed the nation today. They did not show the courage to really say no to lies and corruption in politics." Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal released the following statement: "We are pleased with the decision by the Iowa Supreme Court. The decision affirms our original position: the communication in question was factually accurate and protected free speech."

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IA-Sen: Sam Clovis lands Steve Deace, Bob Vander Plaats endorsements

by: desmoinesdem

Tue May 13, 2014 at 12:40:03 PM CDT

Talk radio host Steve Deace, an Iowa social conservative icon, announced his support for Sam Clovis yesterday in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Deace asserted that Clovis is "most prepared to actually govern" and pointed out that he "was the only candidate who publicly did everything he could to assist Iowa's historic judicial retention election of 2010, which in our opinion is the most important election we've ever been a part of." Furthermore, Deace noted that "those working and volunteering for Sam Clovis' campaign are some of the most devoted patriots and principled conservatives we know in Iowa politics."

I'm only surprised it took him so long to make up his mind. Deace considered Clovis, State Senator Joni Ernst, and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker. You can read how each of those candidates responded to the radio host's questions here, here, and here. Clovis sent the most detailed reply by far. Ernst was the only candidate who did not reply directly, but had her campaign consultant David Polyansky respond on her behalf. In a not very subtle swipe at Ernst, Deace urged conservatives not to let "the media" pick the Republican nominee and praised Clovis for being "willing to have a serious and substantive discussion about the future of the country," in contrast to those who "just regurgitate talking points or get by on focus grouped catch phrases."

Meanwhile, three-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats endorsed Clovis this morning. I've posted the campaign's press release after the jump. Vander Plaats told the Des Moines Register's Jennifer Jacobs that Clovis has the courage of his convictions and is "most prepared to make a difference" in the U.S. Senate. It's the very least Vander Plaats can do after his long flirtation with a Senate campaign kneecapped Clovis for many months. Who knows how many donors and volunteers stayed on the sidelines while Vander Plaats kept dropping hints that he might run for Senate, in what appears to have been a marketing strategy for his latest book. Clovis worked hard to support the campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010, and in return Vander Plaats gave him a gesture that's likely too little and too late.

A number of right-wing groups have previously endorsed Clovis, including Citizens United, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Tea Party Patriots, and the Gun Owners of America. But his campaign's fundraising has been weak, and the latest FEC filing showed only $54,845 cash on hand as of March 31. In three weeks we'll find out whether conservative activist energy can deliver for Clovis, in the absence of statewide direct mail and paid media.

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HIV transmission bill passes in end-of-session surprise

by: desmoinesdem

Thu May 01, 2014 at 13:36:00 PM CDT

Sometimes bills left for dead rise again in the final hours of the Iowa legislature's work. So it was for Senate File 2297, an "act relating to the criminal transmission of a contagious or infectious disease." If signed into law, this bill would replace current Iowa law on HIV transmission, under which a person can be sentenced to 25 years in prison, even if the virus that causes AIDS was not transmitted to anyone. For background on the old law, one of the harshest in the country, click here or here, or listen to this Iowa Public Radio program from March. (Incidentally, the Iowa Supreme Court has heard but not yet ruled on a case related to that law but not challenging its constitutionality.)

Whereas current law takes a "one size fits all" approach to HIV transmission cases, Senate File 2297 outlines more serious penalties for those who intentionally infect a partner (not just with HIV, but with any communicable disease) than for those who either didn't mean to transmit or did not transmit a disease. In addition,

under the new bill, Iowans would no longer be sentenced as sex offenders and a retroactive clause in the bill would remove anyone sentenced under 709c from the sex offender registry. Prosecutors would also have to prove substantial risk, rather than the current law which simply requires non-disclosure.

Senate File 2297 passed the Iowa Senate unanimously in February. Democratic State Senator Rob Hogg said it would update Iowa law to reflect modern medicine and replace a "badly outdated and draconian" part of the code. Republican State Senator Charles Schneider agreed that current law was "not always proportionate" to the crime committed.

So far, so good. But instead of sailing through the Iowa House, Senate File 2297 stalled. It cleared a House Judiciary Subcommittee but not the full committee in time for the "second funnel" deadline in mid-March. The bill landed on the "unfinished business" calendar, which kept it eligible for debate.

I hadn't heard anything about this bill for some time, until I saw this morning that it came up for debate in Iowa House a little before 2 am. It passed by 98 votes to 0. After the jump I've posted a statement from the LGBT advocacy group One Iowa, which has pushed for similar legislation for years.  

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Iowa legislature's quick fix to sexual exploitation statute may need to be fixed

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Apr 25, 2014 at 16:58:00 PM CDT

In just two days, both the Iowa House and Senate unanimously approved a bill drafted in response to a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling. A majority of justices overturned the conviction of an assistant high school basketball coach who had engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with a student, on the grounds that he didn't meet the definition of a "school employee" under Iowa's sexual exploitation statute. House File 2474 closes that loophole, but unfortunately, State Representative Mary Wolfe identified a drafting problem that could criminalize behavior many people would not consider sexual exploitation.

Wolfe is a criminal defense attorney by trade and gave me permission to reproduce part of her blog post below. But you should head over to her Iowa House Happenings blog and read the whole thing. Click here to read the full text of the April 11 Iowa Supreme Court ruling and dissent.

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