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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Muscatine official hides cost of crusade against mayor

Going into tomorrow’s mayoral and city council elections, citizens of Muscatine have no idea how much city leaders spent on the unsuccessful and unconstitutional attempt to remove Mayor Diana Broderson from office. Key internal correspondence related to the long-running power struggle and “kangaroo court” removal proceeding has also been shielded from public view.

City administrator Gregg Mandsager has thwarted records requests from local media by charging outrageous fees for obtaining documents or by redacting information from records provided.

Mandsager’s approach has subverted the spirit of the open records law, raising more questions about the advice Muscatine officials have received from city attorney Matthew Brick.

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Courts reject legal challenges to Iowa collective bargaining law

Two Polk County District Court judges have dismissed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Iowa’s new collective bargaining law. Although the plaintiffs are likely to appeal the rulings, the bar will be high to convince four Iowa Supreme Court justices the state had no rational basis to enact changes affecting some public employees more adversely than others.

I enclose below the court rulings and key points, along with reaction from leaders of AFSCME Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, which filed the lawsuits earlier this year.

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Court vacates "fundamentally unfair" removal of Muscatine mayor

“Due process requires a fair trial before a fair tribunal, not simply the empty appearance of fairness,” declared District Court Judge Mark Cleve in a ruling that threw out the removal of Mayor Diana Broderson in May. Cleve found that the Muscatine City Council’s “fundamentally unfair” actions violated Broderson’s due process rights in two ways: by in effect having council members act as investigators, prosecutors, and judges; and by “having an interest in the outcome of the removal proceeding.”

The October 24 decision (enclosed in full below) drew heavily on what happened during five closed meetings between February 2016 and January 2017. During those sessions, council members discussed with city attorney Matthew Brick their grievances against the mayor and various options for dealing with her.

The city of Muscatine had unsuccessfully appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, hoping to prevent the District Court from considering transcripts of those closed sessions. And no wonder: Cleve found “the record clearly demonstrates that the Council had prejudged the issues,” and that “the Mayor’s removal was a foregone conclusion.”

Although Cleve did not directly address Brick’s conduct, his decision raises questions about the legal advice council members received from a partner in Iowa’s top law firm for representing municipalities.

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Groups challenge Iowa's "ag gag" law in federal court

Two years ago, a federal court in Idaho ruled that state’s “Ag Gag” law unconstitutional, saying the ban on “interference with agricultural production” violated the First Amendment. That ruling pointed to similar problems with Iowa’s law prohibiting so-called “agricultural production facility fraud.”

Today, “a broad coalition of public interest groups” asked a federal court to strike down Iowa’s law under the U.S. Constitution and “enter an order blocking the state from enforcing it.”

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Former Iowa prison nurse files landmark transgender rights lawsuit

A former prison nurse has filed Iowa’s first transgender rights case since state lawmakers and the governor added gender identity protections to the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa announced today.

Jesse Vroegh is suing the Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, the insurance company Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Iowa, and State Penitentiary Warden Patti Wachtendorf on four counts of discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sex. The plaintiff charges that while employed at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, he “was continuously denied the use of restrooms and locker rooms consistent with his gender identity, because he is transgender.”

In addition, the Department of Corrections “denied transgender employees the same level of health care benefit coverage that it provided to non-transgender employees,” while the Department of Administrative Services “was involved in the decision to select and offer to employees of the Iowa Department of Corrections only employer-sponsored health care plans which discriminated against transgender employees.”

Vroegh claims the state’s actions violated the Civil Rights Act and provisions in the Iowa Constitution that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and require equal protection for historically disfavored groups. I enclose below the plaintiff’s initial court filing and a press release providing more background on the case.

Although he no longer works for the Department of Corrections, Vroegh said in a statement he is proceeding with the lawsuit “because I feel I need to fight for the rights not only of transgender people who work for the state but for other Iowa workers as well. I’m not asking for any special treatment of myself or any other transgender person. All I’m asking for is that transgender people be treated the same way as people who are not transgender.”

The ACLU of Iowa noted, “The first transgender employment discrimination case, Sommers v. Iowa Civil Rights Commission, was decided in 1983. But today’s action is the first case we’re aware of to be filed in Iowa District Court that asserts gender identity discrimination in employment since the Iowa Civil Rights Act was amended in 2007 to include gender identity and sexual orientation.” A few state House and Senate Republicans joined almost all of the Democratic lawmakers to approve the new civil rights language during the first year Democrats had controlled both chambers of the legislature in more than a decade. Governor Chet Culver signed the bill into law.

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