The Cady Court: Same As It Ever Was?

First-person accounts of politically-oriented events are always welcome here. Thanks to IowaBadger for this perspective. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Chief Justice Mark Cady’s leadership of the Iowa Supreme Court has been bookended by two major cases. First came his unanimous majority opinion in the Varnum v. Brien decision recognizing marriage equality under the Iowa Constitution, resulting in the defeat of then Chief Justice Marsha Ternus (and two other justices) in the 2010 retention election, and Cady’s elevation to Chief Justice. Then, several weeks ago, was his 4-3 majority opinion in Griffin v. Pate, deciding that the Iowa Constitution’s prohibition against voting by anyone who has committed an "infamous crime" bars anyone with a felony conviction from voting, absent a restoration of voting rights from the governor.

Yesterday, the Des Moines Register held an event entitled "The Cady Court At Five," which gave five panelists the opportunity to talk about both cases, and how the court has gotten from one to the other. Anyone hoping for post July 4th fireworks would have been disappointed, and anyone hoping for definitive answers will have to heed desmoinesdem’s post from yesterday recognizing that we will only understand Justice Cady’s rationale for his vote in Griffin and its seeming inconsistency with his previous opinion in Chiodo v. Panel when he’s interviewed about it years down the road. But for those of us who follow the Iowa Supreme Court closely, we did gain some insight into the Chief Justice’s thinking and what that might mean for future decisions.

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Why did Chief Justice Cady change his mind about felon voting rights?

I don’t usually write posts like this one.

Check that: I don’t think I’ve ever written a post like this one.

I’m making an exception because the question has been nagging at me since the Iowa Supreme Court announced its 4-3 decision in Griffin v Pate two weeks ago today, and because a number of people who share my interest in felon voting rights have asked for my opinion.

Only Chief Justice Mark Cady knows the answer, and we won’t hear his side of the story until he writes his memoirs or speaks to some interviewer in retirement.

So with no claim to telepathic powers and full awareness that my analysis may therefore be flawed, I will do my best to understand why the author of the 2014 opinion that inspired Kelli Jo Griffin’s lawsuit ultimately decided our state constitution "permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship."

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Divided Iowa Supreme Court upholds felon voting ban; key points and political reaction

The Iowa Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit challenging state policy on disenfranchising all felons. Four justices found "insufficient evidence to overcome the 1994 legislative judgment" defining all felonies as "infamous crimes," which under our state’s constitution lead to a lifetime ban on the right to vote or run for office. Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote the majority ruling, joined by Justices Bruce Zager, Edward Mansfield, and Thomas Waterman. They affirmed a district court ruling, which held that having committed a felony, Kelli Jo Griffin lost her voting rights under Iowa law.

Justices Brent Appel, Daryl Hecht, and David Wiggins wrote separate dissenting opinions, each joined by the other dissenters. I enclose below excerpts from all the opinions, along with early political reaction to the majority ruling and a statement from Griffin herself.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed the lawsuit on behalf of Griffin in November 2014, seven months after an Iowa Supreme Court plurality had stated, "It will be prudent for us to develop a more precise test that distinguishes between felony crimes and infamous crimes" that disqualify Iowans from voting.

Three of the six justices who participated in that 2014 case decided Griffin v. Pate differently. In Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel, Cady wrote and Zager joined the plurality opinion, which left open the possibility that not all felonies rise to the level of infamous crimes. Wiggins dissented from the Chiodo plurality, saying the court should not rewrite "nearly one hundred years of caselaw" to "swim into dangerous and uncharted waters."

All credit to Ryan Koopmans for pointing out in March that given how quickly the court had decided Chiodo, "Having had more than a couple days to think about it, some of the justices could easily change their mind." The justices were on a compressed schedule in Chiodo because of the need to print ballots in time for the early voting period starting 40 days before the 2014 Democratic primary. Ned Chiodo was challenging the eligibility of Tony Bisignano, a rival candidate in Iowa Senate district 17.

Side note before I get to the key points from today’s decisions: An enormous opportunity was missed when the state legislature did not revise the 1994 law defining infamous crimes between 2007 and 2010, when Democrats controlled the Iowa House and Senate and Chet Culver was governor. The issue did not seem particularly salient then, because Governor Tom Vilsack’s 2005 executive order had created a process for automatically restoring the voting rights of most felons who had completed their sentences.

But Governor Terry Branstad rescinded Vilsack’s order on his first day back in office in January 2011. During the first five years after Branstad’s executive order, fewer than 100 people (two-tenths of 1 percent of those who had been disenfranchised) successfully navigated the process for regaining voting rights. I consider the policy an unofficial poll tax, because getting your rights back requires an investment of time and resources that most ex-felons do not have. Today’s majority decision leaves this policy in effect, with a massively disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

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PPP poll finds Grassley leading Judge by 7, Clinton ahead of Trump by 2

Today Public Policy Polling released results from six news polls of battleground states, conducted on behalf of Americans United for Change and the Constitutional Responsibility Project. The full results from the Iowa survey are here (pdf). Key findings: only 43 percent of respondents approve of Senator Chuck Grassley’s job performance, while 40 percent disapprove and the rest are unsure. If Iowa’s U.S. Senate election were held today, 46 percent of respondents would vote for Grassley, 39 percent for Democrat Patty Judge, and 14 percent would be undecided. In the presidential race, 41 percent of respondents support Hillary Clinton, 39 percent Donald Trump. After the jump I’ve enclosed highlights from Tom Jensen’s polling memo.

Another PPP poll taken earlier this month also found Grassley below 50 percent and only seven points ahead of Judge. No public poll released in 2010 ever found the senator so narrowly leading his Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin. Republicans are likely to discount today’s survey, because it was commissioned by progressive advocacy groups. I am reserving judgment until I see other pollsters test these Iowa races. That said, the PPP questionnaire showed no sign of "priming" voters to evaluate Grassley or Trump on any particular issue. Respondents were asked about job approval and candidate preferences before answering questions related to the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. By the way, 64 percent of respondents support Senate hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, and only 35 percent trust Donald Trump to pick a Supreme Court justice.

PPP surveyed 897 registered Iowa voters on June 22 and 23, producing a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

UPDATE: Added below Judge’s letter to Grassley, asking for four televised debates and one radio debate.

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Iowa reaction to landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion

In what has been called the most important abortion rights case for many years, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a 2013 Texas law that had forced more than 20 abortion clinics to close. Writing for the 5-3 majority in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Stephen Breyer determined, "Both the admitting-privileges and the surgical-center requirements place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion, constitute an undue burden on abortion access, and thus violate the Constitution."

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer’s opinion. A succinct concurrence by Ginsburg noted, "Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements. […] Given those realities, it is beyond rational belief that [Texas law] H.B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law “would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.”

As Alexa Ura explained at Texas Tribune, today’s decision will not automatically reopen the shuttered Texas clinics. But it could lead to similar laws being struck down in 23 other states, shown on maps in this post by Sarah Kliff and Sarah Frostenson.

Iowa law does not place such restrictions on abortion providers, nor have they been the focus of recent legislative efforts by anti-abortion state lawmakers. But today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision reminded me of the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling from June 2015, which used the same reasoning to reject a state ban on the use of telemedicine for abortion. Just as Iowa Supreme Court justices found no evidence suggesting that women’s health or safety would benefit from being in the same room as a doctor when taking a medication, Breyer’s opinion found nothing in the record supported the claim that the Texas regulations advanced the state’s "legitimate interest in protecting women’s health"; on the contrary, "neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes."

I sought comment today from Governor Terry Branstad and all members of Iowa’s Congressional delegation, as well as the challengers who had not already released statements on the ruling. I will continue to update this post as needed.

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