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Judiciary

Iowa DOT insists that cities shut off some of their traffic cameras

by: desmoinesdem

Wed May 13, 2015 at 22:06:33 PM CDT

The Iowa Department of Transportation is standing behind its ruling that limited the use of traffic cameras in several large Iowa cities. The DOT adopted new rules in late 2013 to limit local governments' ability to install traffic cameras on or near highways. Those rules required cities to demonstrate that cameras were needed to address "critical safety issues," which could not be resolved by other means. Studies have produced conflicting data on whether cameras reduce red light or speeding infractions or vehicle accidents.

In March of this year, DOT officials ordered officials in six cities to shut off ten out of 34 traffic cameras cities had defended on safety grounds. The city of Davenport opted to comply with the DOT ruling, but five other cities asked department officials to reconsider the decision. (Although a reversal was unlikely, exhausting administrative appeals typically precedes legal action challenging a state agency's decision.)

This week, DOT Director Paul Trombino notified city officials in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, and Muscatine that the department was rejecting their appeals, because data did not demonstrate that the disputed cameras had improved safety or reduced crashes. Click through to read copies of the letters. The fifth city to appeal, Sioux City, filed a lawsuit last year challenging the DOT rules. A Woodbury County District Court is scheduled to hear that case soon. Des Moines officials plan to challenge the DOT in court as well. Cedar Rapids officials have not yet decided whether to file a lawsuit. After the jump I've enclosed excerpts from Kathy Bolten's report for the Des Moines Register and Rick Smith's for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Local governments are generally responsible for enforcing traffic laws. I'll be interested to see whether Iowa courts back up the DOT's efforts to restrict those powers on or near major highways. According to Trombino, the Iowa Code allows the DOT to enforce limits on cameras for traffic enforcement. Whatever the courts decide, the state's multi-pronged assault on local control remains an under-reported story of Governor Terry Branstad's fifth and sixth terms.

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Weekend open thread, with more marriage equality links

by: desmoinesdem

Sun May 03, 2015 at 13:07:10 PM CDT

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

Marriage equality has been all over the news, with the sixth anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Iowa arriving the same week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments related to state bans on marriage for LGBT couples. The Des Moines Register published charts showing Iowa poll findings on same-sex marriage going back to 1996. In that year, the Iowa House and Senate approved the Defense of Marriage Act, which the state Supreme Court struck down in the 2009 Varnum v Brien decision. Then State Representative Ed Fallon was the only Iowa lawmaker to vote against the DOMA; click here to read his passionate floor speech against the bill. I've posted excerpts after the jump.

The Washington Post compiled five charts showing "gay marriage's road to popularity." The most fascinating data point to me was that 34 percent of Republican respondents in an April 2015 nationwide Washington Post/ABC News poll now support marriage equality. Another chart shows that "Same-sex marriage attitudes also continue to be divided along religious lines." That data set did not include Jews, however, who overwhelmingly support marriage equality.

Today's Sunday Des Moines Register includes two good features by Mike Kilen following up on the six couples who were plaintiffs in the Varnum case. In a separate piece, Bob Vander Plaats and State Senator Dennis Guth told Kilen why they still believe it was a mistake to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger believes the decline in Republican voter registrations in his state is linked to "divisive battle over Proposition 8," a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. California voters approved Prop 8 by ballot initiative in 2008, but it ceased to be in effect in June 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Prop 8 supporters did not have standing to appeal a lower-court ruling striking down the marriage ban.

Final note: Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines approved a request by a group of students to form a non-religious LGBT support club. The school recently made national news by withdrawing a contract offer made to an openly gay teacher. The new gay-straight alliance, "One Human Family," will help provide "support, respect, and guidance" for students who either identify as LGBT or have questions about their sexual orientation.  

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Ten links on the Supreme Court's oral arguments about same-sex marriage

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Apr 28, 2015 at 20:46:42 PM CDT

The U.S. Supreme Court heard two and a half hours of oral arguments this morning in several cases related to same-sex marriage rights, collectively called Obergefell v. Hodges. This thread is for any relevant comments or speculation.

April 27 marked six years since LGBT couples were able to obtain marriage licenses in Iowa under our state Supreme Court's Varnum v Brien ruling. Bleeding Heartland recently compiled some links related to the marriage equality battle in Iowa.

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Weekend open thread: Latest Steve King publicity stunt edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Apr 26, 2015 at 09:48:19 AM CDT

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

Iowa's own Representative Steve King (R, IA-04) grabbed national attention this week by introducing a bill to "prevent federal courts from hearing marriage cases," thereby stopping the U.S. Supreme Court from "destroying traditional marriage." After the jump I've posted King's official statement about the "Restrain the Judges on Marriage Act" as well as the full text.

President Barack Obama would surely veto this bill, even if it quickly passed the U.S. House (unlikely) and Senate (less likely). So King's effort looks like a publicity stunt to bolster his image as one of the leading culture warriors on the right.

Out of curiosity, I asked Drake Law School Professor Mark Kende, an expert on constitutional law, whether it would theoretically be possible for Congress to limit the Supreme Court's authority to consider any case on marriage. According to Kende, the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to "make exceptions to the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction." Most Congressional efforts along these lines have failed to become law. However, a 19th-century precedent exists; in that case, Congress blocked the Supreme Court from ruling on an appeal in which justices had already heard oral arguments.

Whether King's proposal would be constitutional is a more complicated question, Kende said. The Reconstruction-era law blocked a specific kind of appeal based on habeas corpus but did not bar the Supreme Court from ruling on all cases in that area of the law. The Constitution allows some leeway for "jurisdiction stripping" as a Congressional check on the judiciary, but that doesn't necessarily mean citizens could be prevented from taking any case about their fundamental marriage rights to the Supreme Court.

In an alternate universe where Congress passed and the president signed King's bill, the twelve federal appellate court rulings would be binding in their regions. Most federal court rulings on same-sex marriage bans have supported the principle of marriage equality. Only a divided 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld states' ability to limit marriage rights to opposite-sex couples.

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Henry Rayhons acquitted on sex abuse charge (updated)

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Apr 22, 2015 at 17:23:57 PM CDT

A Hancock County jury acquitted former State Representative Henry Rayhons today on a charge of 3rd Degree Sexual Abuse. Rayhons was accused of having sex with his incapacitated wife in an assisted living facility last May. Prosecutors had tried unsuccessfully to move the trial out of Rayhons' home county, which he had represented for eighteen years in the Iowa House.

The jury deliberated for three days before reaching a not guilty verdict. During the trial, Rayhons denied that he had sex with his wife on the date in question. He had admitted to doing so when first interviewed by a state investigator, but during the trial he said that the investigator had been yelling at him and bullied him into the admission. His DNA was found on his wife's clothing and bed sheets, but on the witness stand during the trial, Donna Rayhons' former roommate testified that she could not be sure of hearing Rayhons having sex with his wife. The the defense argued that the defendant's DNA "could have been left on his wife's things from a previous sexual encounter, before Rayhons had been told by nursing home staff his wife was no longer able to consent to sex." A nurse's exam produced no proof of sexual intercourse on the date in question.

In closing arguments, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Susan Krisko tried to keep the jury focused on the specific events of this case rather than a "philosophical debate" on "whether or not someone with Alzheimer's can have sex." But Rayhons' attorney warned jurors,

"It's an unprecedented case. The decision that you make here will be debated, discussed, followed for years," defense lawyer Joel Yunek said in his closing statement. He said a guilty verdict could make other spouses afraid to even visit a husband or wife with Alzheimer's disease, for fear of being charged as a rapist if the partner with dementia grabbed them the way Rayhons says Donna Rayhons did to him.

Under those circumstances, I'm not surprised the jury acquitted. The defense was wise to frame the case in broad terms, since the trial was getting national attention. We can only hope that Krisko was wrong about an acquittal being tantamount to declaring "open season" on vulnerable people in nursing homes.

LATE UPDATE: In early May, juror Angela Nelson, posted her perspective on the case and why the jury acquitted. Worth clicking through to read the whole piece, but ultimately, forensic evidence was lacking to prove the prosecutor's case. Nelson added that people "with Alzheimer's are still human beings that have the same emotional needs we all have," and "For the state of Iowa to try and legislate intimacy between a married couple is a very dark road to go down [...]."

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New Iowa Workforce Development Director cleaning up Teresa Wahlert's mess

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Apr 22, 2015 at 09:58:14 AM CDT

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend is implementing key recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve concerns about the previous agency director's actions. Townsend's actions provide a refreshing contrast to Teresa Wahlert's management of Iowa Workforce Development, which sparked recurring controversy and not one, not two, but three lawsuits.
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Shorter Terry Branstad: It's good to be the king

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Apr 07, 2015 at 20:26:59 PM CDT

Governor Terry Branstad made a remarkable claim at his latest press conference: because "the people of Iowa elected me to reduce the size and cost of government," he has the authority to "make tough decisions" on closing state-run mental health facilities and reorganizing Medicaid services for more than half a million Iowans.

To justify his position, Branstad channeled President Harry Truman: "The buck stops with me." But his view of governance reminds me more of Mel Brooks in the movie "History of the World, Part 1": "It's good to be the king."

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Mid-week open thread: Pregnancy discrimination edition

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Mar 25, 2015 at 23:15:00 PM CDT

All topics are welcome in this open thread. What news stories captured your attention lately?

Although Congress acted during the 1970s to ban employers from discriminating against pregnant women, both attorneys and women have told me over the years that pregnancy discrimination remains common in the workplace. The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in today in the case of Young v. United Parcel Service. I enclose below some links about this important ruling.

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Branstad insists he pressured Workers' Comp official because of business, not bias

by: desmoinesdem

Thu Mar 19, 2015 at 10:17:05 AM CDT

New details have emerged about Governor Terry Branstad's testimony in the lawsuit Iowa's former Workers' Compensation Commissioner filed three years ago, charging discrimination, defamation, and other claims. Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported highlights from the transcript of Branstad's deposition last November.
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State drops appeal in case on purging Iowa voter rolls

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Mar 13, 2015 at 19:59:49 PM CDT

Who's up for some good news on Friday the 13th? Part of former Secretary of State Matt Schultz's legacy of voter suppression died today. The Iowa Supreme Court will not hear an appeal of a District Court decision that invalidated Schultz's effort to enact rules on purging Iowa voter rolls. The court dismissed the case at the request of the Secretary of State's Office.
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Iowa Supreme Court: Sioux City traffic cameras don't violate constitutional rights or state law

by: desmoinesdem

Fri Feb 20, 2015 at 12:10:00 PM CST

The Iowa Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a District Court ruling that held a man responsible for a speeding ticket issued under Sioux City's Automated Traffic Enforcement Ordinance. You can read Justice Brent Appel's whole decision here (pdf). Michael Jacobsma employed several legal arguments in his suit challenging the speeding ticket:

The defendant sought dismissal of the citation on constitutional grounds, claiming enforcement of the ordinance violated the Due Process Clauses of the Iowa and Federal Constitutions, the inalienable rights clause of the Iowa Constitution, and the Iowa municipal home rule amendment that prohibits cities from enacting ordinances that conflict with state law.

Pages 2 through 7 cover background on Sioux City's ordinance, Jacobsma's ticket, and his legal challenge. Pages 7 through 23 explore the extensive federal and state case law on due process challenges against similar ordinances. Key points: the ordinance allows vehicle owners to present evidence indicating that they were not driving at the time of the alleged traffic violation, but Jacobsma never did so. Furthermore, since this case involves only civil penalties (a fine) rather than criminal penalties, there is less of a burden on the government to prove Jacobsma was operating the vehicle when it was traveling at 67 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone.

Pages 24 through 32 address Jacobsma's claim that the presumption in the Sioux City traffic camera ordinance violates his "inalienable rights" under the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. After going through lots of court rulings on inalienable rights clauses, Appel notes that many "cases hold that liberty or property rights enumerated in the inalienable rights clauses of state constitutions are subject to reasonable regulations in the public interest." The Iowa Supreme Court justices agreed, "there is no doubt that the regulation to control speeding on state highways gives rise to a public interest generally."

Pages 33 through 35 address Jacobsma's claim that the Sioux City ordinance is invalid because it conflicts with state law. Here the controlling case law is Davenport v Seymour, a 2008 Iowa Supreme Court decision also authored by Appel. That ruling upheld the city of Davenport's use of traffic cameras. Today's ruling concludes that Sioux City's rules on tickets issued by traffic cameras are "consistent with substantive state law related to speeding" and not "irreconcilable" with the various Iowa Code provisions cited by Jacobsma.

Speaking to Radio Iowa's Dar Danielson, Jacobsma said he is disappointed with today's ruling but respects the Iowa Supreme Court's opinion.

The high court may eventually consider a different case related to Sioux City's traffic cameras. Last year, city officials filed a lawsuit claiming the Iowa Department of Transportation exceeded its authority when it issued rules restricting local governments' use of automated traffic enforcement systems. That case is scheduled to be heard in Woodbury County District Court this May.

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Weekend open thread: Love and marriage equality edition

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Feb 15, 2015 at 15:21:03 PM CST

What's on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? I'm not big on "Hallmark holidays," but if Valentine's Day (or "co-opting Valentine's Day") is your thing, I hope you enjoyed February 14. This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I wanted to catch up on news from a couple of weeks ago, which may continue to reverberate during the Republican Iowa caucus campaign. The owners of Görtz Haus agreed to settle with a gay couple who had wanted to get married at their venue in Grimes. Betty and Richard Odgaard are Mennonites who don't believe in same-sex marriage. Since the law doesn't allow them to discriminate against LGBT couples, they have decided not to hold any weddings at their place of business. They also dropped their own doomed-to-fail lawsuit against the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Clips with background on the episode and reaction to its resolution are after the jump.

Social conservatives are outraged over what they see as an assault on religious freedom. Both talk radio host Steve Deace and Bob Vander Plaats' organization The FAMiLY Leader have indicated that the Görtz Haus controversy will be a salient issue in the coming presidential campaign.

What these folks can't acknowledge is that no one is forcing the Odgaards or anyone else to approve of or "celebrate" gay weddings. Many of us have ethical or religious objections to some marriages; for instance, if the couple began dating while married to other people, or if one person appears to be marrying solely for money, or if there is a large age gap between the spouses. Plenty of Jews and Christians would disapprove of my own interfaith marriage. No one is demanding that the whole world applaud every marriage, only that the religious beliefs of some don't interfere with the civil rights of others.

Additionally, it's important to note that no house of worship in Iowa has ever been forced to hold same-sex weddings. If the Odgaards ran a church, they would be fully within their rights to refuse to serve LGBT couples. Görtz Haus is a for-profit business, subject to the same civil rights statutes as other public venues.  

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Iowans haven't heard the last from Brenna (Findley) Bird

by: desmoinesdem

Sat Feb 07, 2015 at 16:18:43 PM CST

Governor Terry Branstad's office announced on Thursday that Brenna Bird (whose maiden name was Findley) is stepping down as the governor's legal counsel "to pursue opportunities in the private sector." Her LinkedIn profile hasn't been updated yet, so it's not clear whether Bird is returning to the Des Moines-based Whitaker Hagenow law firm. She joined that firm in 2010 after leaving Representative Steve King's staff, but did not practice much law, since she was running for Iowa attorney general full-time.

Branstad named Bird as his legal counsel shortly after the 2010 election. She appears to have influenced several of the governor's policy choices. At one time, Branstad had supported a mandate to purchase health insurance, but soon after being inaugurated in 2011, he joined a lawsuit to overturn the federal health care reform law (a key issue in Bird's unsuccessful attorney general campaign). Branstad's legal counsel also appears to have helped convince Branstad to change his position on banning lead shot for hunting mourning doves in Iowa. When the state legislature refused to overturn a rule mandating non-toxic ammunition, Bird worked several angles to overturn a rule adopted by the state Natural Resource Commission.

Bird's work as legal counsel has also gotten the Branstad administration involved in some major litigation. In 2011, she participated in efforts to pressure Iowa's Workers Compensation Commissioner to resign before the end of his fixed term. As a result, she and the governor, along with other former staffers, are co-defendants in a lawsuit filed by the former workers' compensation commissioner.

In 2013, Bird was a key contact for Iowans seeking to ban the use of telemedicine for providing medical abortions in Planned Parenthood clinics. As the Iowa Board of Medicine considered a new rule containing verbatim wording from anti-abortion activists, the state Attorney General's Office "cautioned the board against moving so quickly." But as the governor's counsel, Bird encouraged board members to adopt the telemedicine abortion ban immediately. Planned Parenthood's lawsuit challenging that rule is pending with the Iowa Supreme Court.

Bird may be leaving the public sector for now, but I suspect Iowans will see her name on a ballot before too long. She reportedly considered running for Congress last year in Iowa's third district and has served on the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee since last June. I could easily see Bird running for a Republican-leaning Iowa House or Senate seat if one were to open up in central Iowa. Alternatively, she and 2014 attorney general nominee Adam Gregg (now Iowa's state public defender) are likely GOP candidates for attorney general in 2018.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. After the jump I've enclosed a press release on Bird's departure from the governor's staff, with background on Michael Bousselot, her successor as legal counsel.  

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Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice calls for action on racial disparity, courthouse security

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Jan 14, 2015 at 14:32:36 PM CST

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady delivered his annual State of the Judiciary address to Iowa House and Senate members this morning. The full text is available here (pdf), and I've posted important sections after the jump. Cady hailed progress the court system is making on helping Iowa children and improving efficiency and transparency. He described ongoing initiatives to improve how Iowa courts handle family law cases and review guardianship and conservatorship laws and procedures. Cady also asked lawmakers to appropriate 4.7 percent more funding for the court system in the next fiscal year.

Cady cited recent work within the judicial branch to "better understand and address the persistence of racial disparities" in the criminal justice system--a longstanding problem in Iowa. I enclosed below reaction from Assistant House Minority Leader Ako Abdul-Samad. Abdul-Samad is one of five African-American members of the Iowa House.

Finally, the chief justice alluded to a shooting last September during a meeting of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors as he called for action "to make every courthouse in Iowa safer and more secure."

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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Final news roundup of how Harkin and Grassley voted

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Dec 17, 2014 at 19:36:37 PM CST

Senator Tom Harkin cast his final votes in Congress yesterday as the upper chamber wrapped up the lame-duck session. He and Senator Chuck Grassley were on opposite sides as Democrats confirmed a batch of presidential nominees on Monday and Tuesday. You can view all the roll calls here; the nominees were approved mostly along party lines. They included several judges and assistant secretaries of various agencies and Dr. Vivek Murthy, confirmed as surgeon general by 51 votes to 43, with only one Republican yes vote. Murthy had been the target of a relentless "smear campaign" by conservative media and the National Rifle Association, because of his comment in October 2012 that "Guns are a health care issue."

The conservative media attacks against Murthy began in early March. Coverage of his nomination focused on his past acknowledgement that gun violence affects public health, which conservative media spun as evidence Murthy is obsessed with gun regulations. (Murthy has actually said his focus as Surgeon General will not be on gun violence, but rather obesity.)

Because of strange Senate procedural rules, hardline conservative Republican Senator Ted Cruz inadvertently made this week's raft of confirmations possible. His constitutional point of order against the massive federal government funding bill last Friday prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to convene the chamber on Saturday. That gave Democrats more time to set up confirmation votes on nominees this Monday and Tuesday. Rebecca Kaplan of CBS News explained here that the most controversial presidential nominees to be confirmed "thanks to Ted Cruz" are Murthy, Tony Blinken for Deputy Secretary of State, and Sarah Saldaña, for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director in the Department of Homeland Security. Harkin voted for and Grassley against all of those nominees.

Iowa's senators ended up on the same side in one big vote this week: the bill extending dozens of tax breaks for corporations and individuals. Steven Dennis noted in Roll Call,

Handing out mostly corporate tax breaks and adding to the debt to do it has proven to be a popular thing for Congress. Democrats including President Barack Obama spent the better part of 2013 trying to get Republicans to agree to more revenue as part of a budget deal, but are now signing on to deficit expansion for the sake of tax breaks that will expire, again, in two weeks.

Usually, these tax breaks - which range from the R&D tax break to breaks for NASCAR, racehorse owners and wind farms - are touted as incentives - and indeed some senators called them that Tuesday. But it's hard to retroactively incentivize anything - a point made on the Senate floor by outgoing Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who voted no and said the tax bill didn't even have the shelf life of a carton of eggs. [...] After President Barack Obama threatened to veto an emerging deal after the midterms that would have added close to half a trillion to the debt over a decade, the scaled-back bill was all Congress could muster.

The tax extenders bill passed by 76 votes to 16. Joining Iowa's senators in the yes column were possible GOP presidential candidates Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. Opponents of this bill included Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Independent Bernie Sanders, who is exploring a presidential campaign as a Democrat, missed yesterday's votes because he was in Iowa.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. Grassley's official statement on the tax extenders bill is after the jump.

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Senate roundup: Harkin, Grassley against funding deal, split on other votes

by: desmoinesdem

Sun Dec 14, 2014 at 10:27:58 AM CST

Senator Tom Harkin cast his last votes in Congress over the weekend. After the jump I've posted the video and full transcript of Harkin's final speech on the U.S. Senate floor, delivered on December 12. He and Iowa's senior Senator Chuck Grassley were at odds in many roll-call votes these past two days. However, they both voted against the $1.1 trillion government funding bill senators passed late Saturday night. The 56 to 40 roll call reveals an unusual bipartisan split. Yes votes came from 32 Democrats and 24 Republicans, while 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans voted no. Liberals like Harkin found plenty to dislike in the so-called "cromnibus" spending bill. Notably, it included a big change to the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which was literally written by one of the large banks that will benefit. The spending bill also includes a "big coal giveaway", big cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget, and several other bad environmental provisions. What Democrats supposedly got out of the "cromnibus" wasn't worth it in my opinion.

Just before the final vote on the spending bill, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas raised a constitutional point of order:

"If you believe President Obama's executive order was unconstitutional vote yes," Cruz said ahead of the vote on Saturday. "If you think the president's executive order is constitutional vote no."

Only 22 senators voted with Cruz and 74 voted against his point of order.

The roll call shows that Grassley was one of the Republicans who voted for the point of order. The group included several senators who may run for president (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman) and a bunch of Republicans who are up for re-election in 2016 and presumably want to avoid a GOP primary challenge.

Many of the Republicans who opposed Cruz's motion (including the Senate GOP leadership team) probably were motivated by the desire to avoid a government shutdown. Nevertheless, they are now on record voting no when Cruz said such a vote signified a belief that "the president's executive order is constitutional."

Also on Saturday, senators approved on party lines a series of motions to advance judicial nominees. Here Harkin and Grassley were on opposite sides. In fact, disagreements over whether to vote on these nominations delayed a final vote on the spending bill. Harkin and other Democrats backed all the nominations. Grassley will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee when the new Congress convenes and has promised more vigorous oversight of nominations. He objected to moving the judicial nominations during the lame-duck session, even though many of the nominees were non-controversial and had been approved by a Judiciary Committee voice vote. In fact, Republican senators from Illinois and Texas had recommended some of these nominees for federal judgeships.

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Chutzpah alert: Branstad as defender of the separation of powers

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Dec 03, 2014 at 19:58:40 PM CST

In the busy days before Thanksgiving, I missed this unintentional comedy from Governor Terry Branstad's weekly press conference (hat tip to Todd Dorman):

"There's also a constitutional question about whether the president of the United States has the authority to act unilaterally on issues like this [immigration policy]," Branstad said. "So I expect there's going to be a lot of unanswered questions that I need to get information about and what the impact would have on our state."

Asked if he would take executive action on state immigration policy, Branstad responded, "We don't operate that way in Iowa."

"That's the difference between Washington, D.C., and Iowa," Branstad said. "In Iowa, I'm very careful to recognize the separation of powers and to work with the Legislature."

Where to begin?

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Supreme Court denies Muscatine polluter's last-ditch effort to block nuisance lawsuit

by: desmoinesdem

Tue Dec 02, 2014 at 09:55:00 AM CST

A group of Muscatine residents will be able to pursue their nuisance lawsuit against the Grain Processing Corporation, one of the area's major polluters for many years. Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the company's appeal of a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision allowing the lawsuit to be heard in Iowa District Court. The company had argued that the federal Clean Air Act preempts claims like the ones the Muscatine residents are making. (You can see Grain Processing Corp v. Freeman, Laurie, et al on a long list of cases in which the Supreme Court denied certiorari.)

There is no guarantee that the Muscatine residents will win their nuisance lawsuit, but now a District Court will consider the merits of their case. Plaintiffs claim that the Grain Processing Corporation's facility exposes locals to dangerous levels of air pollution, damages their property, and reduces property values.

UPDATE: Jason Liegois reported for the Muscatine Journal,

Environmental groups, including Clean Air Muscatine, supported the lawsuit, but business groups said regulation of air pollution should be left to state and federal agencies and not judged on a case-by-case basis.

"We are disappointed in the decision" GPC spokesperson Janet Sichterman, stated in an to the Muscatine Journal. "GPC, and others, strongly contend that regulation of air emissions is not the responsibility of the courts, rather the responsibility of the EPA and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR)."

Sichterman also pointed out GPC's plan to transition from using coal to natural gas boilers, which would nearly eliminate sulfur dioxide and lead, among other emissions. The company is doing this as part of an agreement between the state and GPC, which also saw the company pay a $1.5 million fine to settle a lawsuit against the company filed by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. In addition, GPC is investing nearly $100 million in a dryer house project and other environmental control technology. [...]

GPC, a subsidiary company of the Muscatine-based Kent Corp., operates a plant that turns corn kernels into products ranging from corn syrup to ethyl alcohol. A regional economic force, the company buys $400 million in corn from farmers annually and is one of the area's largest employers. [...]

Sichterman said the case is in the discovery phase, where it is expected to remain until at least the summer of 2015.

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House sues Obama administration over health care reform law

by: desmoinesdem

Mon Nov 24, 2014 at 07:35:00 AM CST

On Friday the U.S. House of Representatives filed a federal lawsuit challenging several aspects of how the Obama administration has implemented the 2010 Affordable Care Act. You can read the plaintiffs' full case here (pdf) against two cabinet secretaries and the agencies they lead. The main arguments are that the Obama administration broke the law by delaying the employer mandate to provide health insurance, and also by providing certain payments to health insurance companies without having Congress appropriate those funds. The first point was expected, but the second argument surprised even those who have closely followed the political battle over Obamacare. Sarah Kliff explained the challenged payments and how they fit into the law. Ashley Parker reported for the New York Times, "If the lawsuit is successful, poor people would not lose their health care, because the insurance companies would still be required to provide coverage - but without the help of the government subsidy, the companies might be forced to raise costs elsewhere."

In contrast, the legal challenge to delaying the employer mandate is more "symbolic," as that provision of the Affordable Care Act will have gone into effect by the time this lawsuit works its way through federal courts.

House Republicans voted to authorize this lawsuit shortly before going on a long summer recess. Iowa's four representatives split on party lines, with Republicans Tom Latham (IA-03) and Steve King (IA-04) supporting the measure and Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02) opposed, along with every other House Democrat present. At the time, the lawsuit was perceived as House Speaker John Boehner's way of deflecting conservative sentiment toward drafting articles of impeachment. At times this fall, Congress-watchers wondered whether the lawsuit would go forward, as two major law firms worked on the case for a while before declining to participate in litigation. A conservative legal scholar eventually took the case.

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Senate roundup: Harkin, Grassley split on Keystone XL, limits on NSA spying, and judges

by: desmoinesdem

Wed Nov 19, 2014 at 12:53:16 PM CST

Iowa's Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin rarely found themselves in agreement during a busy day on the Senate floor yesterday. A bill to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project fell one vote short of the 60-vote threshold to defeat a filibuster. The roll call shows that Grassley was among the 59 yes votes (all Republicans plus 14 Democrats), while Harkin was among the 41 Democrats who defeated the bill. Scroll to the end of this post to read Grassley's statement on the failure to pass this measure. He backs an "all-of-the-above approach to meet the country's energy needs and give consumers choice." He does not address the reality that oil transported via Keystone XL would likely be sold to foreign markets, having no effect on domestic gasoline prices.

Although several of the pro-Keystone Democrats just lost their seats in this year's elections, nine of them will continue to serve next year. That means future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have the votes to overcome a filibuster of future bills on the pipeline. He won't have the 67 votes needed to overcome a presidential veto, but Republicans have vowed to attach Keystone language to "must-pass" bills that President Barack Obama won't want to veto.

Senators also blocked a bill that would have attempted to rein in domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency. Timothy B. Lee wrote a good backgrounder on the USA Freedom Act. The cloture vote failed by 58 to 42. Like almost all the Senate Democrats, Harkin voted for proceeding to debate the bill. Like all but four Republicans, Grassley voted to block efforts to reduce NSA spying on Americans. Members of Congress will revisit this issue next year, but I'm not optimistic any reforms will pass.

Side note: among the senators who are possible Republican presidential candidates in 2016, Ted Cruz voted for the USA Freedom Act. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio voted no. Paul opposed the bill because it did not go far enough, in his view; Rubio voted no because he thought the bill would increase the risk of terrorist attacks in this country.

Last week and this week, the Senate has moved forward on several nominees for vacant judicial spots on U.S. district courts. Harkin supported confirming all of the president's nominees. Grassley voted against cloture on all of the nominations, but Republicans were not able to block any of them from a vote on the floor, because the 60-vote threshold no longer applies to most confirmations. (That could change when Republicans take control of the chamber in the new year.) On the confirmation votes themselves, Grassley opposed most of the judges nominated by the president, with one exception last week and another exception yesterday. Many expect judicial confirmations to stop happening when Grassley becomes chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but perhaps he will let a few non-controversial nominees through.

A bill reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant gained massive bipartisan support on Monday, passing by 88 votes to 1. Both Grassley and Harkin backed this bill. In a statement I've enclosed after the jump, Harkin explained how this bill "will expand access to and improve the quality of child care for the more than 1.5 million children and families that benefit from the federal child care subsidy program." President Obama signed this bill today, and Representative Dave Loebsack (D, IA-02) attended the ceremony. He worked on the bill as ranking member of the House Education and Labor subcommittee that covers early childhood issues. I posted Loebsack's statement below Harkin's.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Note: Over the years I've written dozens of posts about Grassley and Harkin splitting on Senate votes. I expect that to end for the most part in January. If Joni Ernst votes differently from Grassley even five times over the next two years, I'll be shocked.

UPDATE: Added after the jump some of Harkin's recent comments on the Keystone XL pipeline.

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