District Court lets stand Branstad veto of mental health institute funding

Polk County District Court Judge Douglas Staskal has dismissed a lawsuit challenging Governor Terry Branstad’s authority to veto funding intended to keep two in-patient mental health facilities open. Twenty Democratic state lawmakers and the president of Iowa’s largest public-employee union filed the lawsuit in July, arguing that the governor’s line-item vetoes violated Iowa Code provisions requiring that the state "shall operate" mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. But Judge Staskal found that "Existing statutes cannot limit the Governor’s item veto authority," which "is of constitutional magnitude. The only limitations that have been placed on that authority have been derived from the language of the constitution itself. […] And, there is no language in the item veto provision which suggests a statutory limitation on the power it creates. It is elementary that, to the extent there is conflict between a constitutional provision and a statute, the constitution prevails."

I enclose below longer excerpts from the court ruling, which can be read in full here. Mark Hedberg, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs, told Bleeding Heartland they "are preparing an appeal" to the Iowa Supreme Court "and will ask that it be expedited."

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Sounds like Jim Webb is leaning toward an independent presidential bid

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Ten days after ending his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator Jim Webb appears to be leaning toward an independent candidacy. His guest editorial in today’s Washington Post is titled, "America needs an independent presidential candidate." Excerpt:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) notwithstanding, the Democratic Party has coalesced around a member of a powerful, moneyed dynasty whom at this point most Americans do not trust and half do not like. If successful, she would guarantee further gridlock; if unsuccessful, she could lead the Democratic Party to the same dismal results it experienced in the elections in 2010 and 2014.

Tectonic shifts occur slowly but eventually they produce earthquakes. It is becoming ever clearer that we are on the cusp of a new era in U.S. politics, driven by the reality that a large percentage of Americans really do dislike both political parties and their leaders. They want and deserve something different, and nowhere is that reality more clearly seen than in the presidential race, in which the extremes that have taken over the nominating process have become glaringly obvious.

There can be no better answer to these developments than electing as president a tested, common-sense independent who can bring to Washington a bipartisan administration to break the gridlock paralyzing our political debates and restore the faith of our people in their leaders.

I am in the process of deciding whether to mount such a campaign. Clearly, the need for another option grows stronger and more apparent by the day.

Disenchantment with the major political parties is nothing new. But if the much better-known independent candidate Ross Perot couldn’t win a single state after spending some $60 million on his 1992 presidential bid, how on earth does Webb think he could be elected next year? He’d need to raise an estimated $8 million just to get on the ballot in all 50 states. In his last fundraising quarter as a Democratic candidate, Webb raised less than $700,000.

For a fraction of the expense of running for president, Webb could become an influential nationwide advocate for criminal justice reform. I remain hopeful that after weighing the costs and benefits, Webb will reject a hopeless vanity bid in favor of an issue-based campaign to change this country for the better.

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New state office will seek to identify and exonerate wrongfully convicted Iowans

Six months after the Federal Bureau of Investigation acknowledged that flawed testimony about hair analysis may have caused innocent people to be convicted of crimes, the State Public Defender’s office has created a new Wrongful Conviction Division "to determine whether similar errors have occurred in Iowa cases" and to "pursue available legal remedies." I enclose below the press release announcing the new office, which will collaborate with Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Innocence Project of Iowa, and the Midwest Innocence Project. People seeking to have their cases reviewed can submit this 12-page intake questionnaire (pdf).

State Public Defender Adam Gregg deserves credit for making this happen less than a year after Governor Terry Branstad appointed him to the job. (A former legislative liaison for Branstad, Gregg ran unsuccessfully for Iowa attorney general in 2014.) The press release indicates that Gregg repurposed a vacant position in his office using existing appropriations. Taking that route allowed him to move more quickly than if he had lobbied state lawmakers for funding to create a Wrongful Conviction Division. Gregg also hired a serious person to run the new division in Audrey McGinn, who spent four years as a staff attorney for the California Innocence Project. Scroll to the end of this post for more background on McGinn’s work.

Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson reported from the October 26 press conference,

“What’s an acceptable error rate for our criminal justice system?” State Public Defender Adam Gregg asked this morning. “Even if we get it right 99 percent of the time and only get it wrong one percent of the time, that would mean there are over 80 innocent people currently incarcerated in Iowa prisons. And at what cost? To the state, it’s about $34,000 per year per inmate. But what about to their families, to their lives and to their sanity? And at what cost to public safety?”

Gregg said when the wrong person is convicted, that means the real criminal isn’t held accountable. The first batch of cases to be reviewed by this new division date back to the 1980s and early ’90s.

Criminal defense attorney Nick Sarcone commented to Bleeding Heartland, "I think this is an important step towards ensuring the integrity of our justice system. However, we need to spend more time, energy and money fixing the substantial issues which plague our system at the trial court level. We need to ensure this new unit is not investigating cases from 2015 in 2030."

UPDATE: Added below criminal defense attorney Joseph Glazebrook’s reaction to this news.

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U.S. Attorney Nick Klinefeldt stepping down, not running in IA-03

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After six years as U.S. attorney for Iowa’s Southern District, Nick Klinefeldt will leave that position next month to go back to private law practice. I enclose below the full press release on his departure. Among other things, the former defense attorney highlighted his work on national committees "to update and expand discovery policies to ensure defendants [in federal courts] receive all of the information they need to adequately defend themselves, and revamp sentencing practices to ensure the end result of a prosecution is fair." He also

developed a comprehensive discovery policy for the Southern District of Iowa that ensures criminal defendants receive even more information about the case against them than is required by the rules and that they receive it quickly. This policy included the development of a Stipulated Discovery and Protective Order that is now universally used in all criminal cases across the district. United States Attorney Klinefeldt also changed the way the office utilized mandatory minimum sentences, to ensure that they were only used when absolutely necessary.

U.S. House race-watchers had their eye on Klinefeldt earlier this year as a possible Democratic candidate in Iowa’s third Congressional district, but I have never heard of Klinefeldt signaling any intention to run. In recent weeks, the local Democratic establishment has been consolidating around Jim Mowrer, one of two declared challengers to first-term Representative David Young. Today Klinefeldt confirmed that he is not planning to run for Congress, Grant Rodgers reported for the Des Moines Register.

UPDATE: Michael Gartner wrote an excellent commentary on Klinefeldt’s record for the Des Moines-based weekly Cityview. Scroll to the end of this post for excerpts.

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A better use of Jim Webb's time than running for president as an independent

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Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb ended his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination today. Warning that “The very nature of our democracy is under siege due to the power structure and the money that finances both political parties,” Webb said he will spend the next few weeks deciding whether to run for president as an independent. He still believes he "can provide the best leadership" to meet the country’s challenges and intends "to remain fully engaged in the debates that are facing us."

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, recently estimated that getting on the ballot in all 50 states would cost about $8 million and would require a lot of organizational work. Webb asserted today, “I have no doubt that if I ran as an independent we would have significant financial help.” But his presidential campaign raised less than $700,000 during the entire third quarter. Nor did Webb build much of an organization, even in the early-nominating states.

Webb could devote the next year to seeking ballot access and public attention, winning a few percent of the vote in the best-case scenario. Or, he could influence a salient public policy debate that is close to his heart with a much smaller investment of his time and other people’s money.

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Weekend open thread: Strange courtroom pronouncements edition

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

Former State Senator Kent Sorenson testified this week in the trial of two former Ron Paul presidential campaign aides. (A judge dismissed charges against a third man who had been indicted in the same case.) After initially claiming to be the victim of a "straight-up political witch hunt," Sorenson eventually pled guilty to federal charges related to accepting hidden payments. He had been negotiating with Paul’s operatives for months on a price for changing his allegiance from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to Paul less than a week before the Iowa caucuses.

Russ Choma wrote up Sorenson’s testimony for Mother Jones, and Grant Rodgers has been covering the trial for the Des Moines Register. On Thursday, Sorenson testified that he was upset when some staffers for Michele Bachmann’s campaign treated him "like a leper," after he revealed that he had considered switching to Paul and was offered money to do so. Dude, what did you expect? Asking to be paid for a presidential endorsement should get a person shunned from polite society. People with leprosy should take offense at being compared to a guy like you.

Sorenson said in court the next day that going into politics was "a waste of my life, and I wish I had not done it." I would guess a large number of Iowans in both parties also wish he had never gotten involved with politics.

Ten days ago, Polk County District Court Judge Douglas Staskal heard arguments in a case challenging Governor Terry Branstad’s veto of funding for two in-patient mental health facilities his administration decided to close earlier this year. In one exchange, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Thompson asserted that the governor could theoretically shut down the state’s court system by exercising his veto power to reject all appropriated funds for the judiciary. He noted that the constitution gives state lawmakers power to override a governor’s veto (through a two-thirds majority vote in both the Iowa House and Senate), and courts should not take on that role if legislators decline to do so.

I would like to hear attorneys’ opinions on whether the governor’s veto power extends so far. Can the governor eliminate virtually any part of state government by blocking appropriations for it, as long as at least one-third plus one member of one chamber of the legislature will back up his political agenda?

I’ve posted excerpts from these reports after the jump.

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