How Iowa could have lost three Supreme Court justices in 2016

Remember how awful you felt on November 9, 2016, as you started to grasp what we were up against following the most devastating Iowa election in decades?

Would you believe the results could have been even worse?

Imagine Governor Terry Branstad appointing three right-wingers to the Iowa Supreme Court. It could have happened if conservative groups had targeted Chief Justice Mark Cady, Justice Brent Appel, and Justice Daryl Hecht with the resources and fervor they had applied against three justices in 2010.

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Smooth sailing for Iowa Supreme Court justices up for retention in 2016

Three of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who concurred in the historic Varnum v Brien ruling on marriage equality lost their jobs in the 2010 judicial retention elections. A fourth survived a similar campaign against retaining him in 2012.

The last three Varnum justices, including the author of the unanimous opinion striking down our state’s Defense of Marriage Act, will appear on Iowa ballots this November. At this writing, no one seems to be organizing any effort to vote them off the bench. Iowa’s anti-retention campaigns in 2010 and 2012 were well under way by the end of August, but the social conservatives who spearheaded those efforts have shown no interest in repeating the experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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Iowa Supreme Court considering defamation case over 2010 political ad

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in an appeal of Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand’s defamation lawsuit against his 2010 opponent, Rick Mullin, and the Iowa Democratic Party. Des Moines attorney and law blogger Ryan Koopmans live-tweeted the hearing, and Mike Wiser and Grant Rodgers published summaries.

We’ll know the verdict within a few months, but I’ve posted some thoughts and predictions below.

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