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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Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mansfield on Trump's expanded list for SCOTUS

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield is among ten new names on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s list of possible U.S. Supreme Court appointees, multiple journalists reported today.

Former Governor Chet Culver appointed Mansfield to the Iowa Court of Appeals in 2009. He was a workhorse on that bench, writing some 200 opinions in less than two years. Since Governor Terry Branstad named him to the Iowa Supreme Court in February 2011, Mansfield has been one of the court’s most prolific opinion writers. He is part of a conservative bloc of justices including the other two Branstad most recently appointed.

Mansfield’s judicial philosophy would appeal to many conservatives. He rarely joins what might be called “activist” decisions to overturn state law, administrative rule, or executive body determinations. In this year’s biggest case, Mansfield was part of a 4-3 majority upholding Iowa’s broad ban on voting by people with felony convictions. He has not joined various majority opinions related to juvenile sentencing, including one this year that held “juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole” under Iowa’s Constitution. He dissented from a 2014 ruling that allowed a lawsuit against top Branstad administration officials to proceed.

Social conservatives might be encouraged by the fact that three years ago, Mansfield hinted in a one-paragraph concurrence that he does not agree with the legal reasoning underpinning the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 Varnum v Brien decision on marriage equality. However, he has never clarified whether he would have upheld Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act or struck it down on different grounds.

The biggest red flag about Mansfield from a conservative perspective would probably be his decision to join last year’s unanimous ruling to strike down Iowa’s ban on telemedicine for abortion services. When the State Judicial Nominating Commission put Mansfield on the short list for the Iowa Supreme Court in early 2011, some conservatives grumbled that the judge’s wife was an active supporter of Planned Parenthood. Though the telemed abortion decision was grounded in the law and medical facts, critics may view Mansfield as untrustworthy on one of their key priorities for the U.S. Supreme Court: overturning Roe v Wade. I am not aware of Mansfield expressing any public opinion on that landmark 1973 abortion rights ruling.

One other Iowan is on Trump’s long list for the Supreme Court. Judge Steven Colloton of Des Moines, who serves on the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, was one of eleven names the Trump campaign released soon after locking up the GOP nomination. I enclose below more background on Colloton.

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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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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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Cady, Zager emerge as Iowa Supreme Court's "swing" justices

Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Bruce Zager emerged as “swing” votes on the Iowa Supreme Court during the latest session, according to new analysis by Ryan Koopmans at the On Brief blog. During the 2012/2013 term, the high court handed down split decisions in 30 of the 83 cases considered that were not related to attorney discipline. Two distinct “voting blocs” emerged, with Justices David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht, and Brent Appel often on one side and Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman on the other side. Cady and Zager were usually part of the majority and only occasionally sided with the dissenters.

A similar analysis by Koopmans showed that during the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2011/2012 term, Zager was the only swing justice, never dissenting from a majority opinion. Cady typically ended up on the same side as Waterman and Mansfield.

Tables on this page show how often each of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices agreed with each other in non-unanimous decisions during the past two years. It will be interesting to see whether these trends hold or change.

Governor Terry Branstad appointed Cady in 1998 and Mansfield, Waterman, and Zager in 2011. Governor Tom Vilsack appointed Wiggins in 2003 and Appel and Hecht in 2006. None of the justices will be up for retention in 2014. Cady, Appel, and Hecht should have little trouble being retained again in 2016, judging from the failed attempt by social conservatives to oust Wiggins in 2012.

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Iowa Supreme Court allows review of long sentences for juveniles

Catching up on news from last week, the Iowa Supreme Court handed down three important decisions related to juvenile sentencing on August 16. I finally had a chance to read through the rulings, which do not guarantee early release for any prisoner but could allow hundreds of Iowans to have their sentences reviewed, if they were convicted for crimes committed as minors.

Follow me after the jump for background and key points from the three rulings. Unfortunately, Governor Terry Branstad still seems to be missing the point of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that set all of these cases in motion.

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