Judge orders Branstad administration to reopen Iowa Juvenile Home

Polk County District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg ruled yesterday in favor of plaintiffs who are challenging the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home by the Iowa Department of Human Services. Finding that the four state legislators and the president of a public employees union were “likely to succeed on the merits” when the court considers their lawsuit, Judge Rosenberg granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. He ordered Governor Terry Branstad’s administration to “reopen the Toledo home and abide by the duly passed laws of the state of Iowa which established the Toledo Home […].”

After the jump I’ve posted an excerpt from the ruling, which you can read in full on the Des Moines Register’s website. I’ve also posted reaction from several of the plaintiffs and from Branstad.

This isn’t the first time a state court has found that the governor overreached in disregarding legislative intent on the allocation of state funds. Maybe Branstad should get better legal advice before deciding to ignore language from budget bills he signed into law.  

The Des Moines Register posted Judge Rosenberg’s 17-page ruling here. The first few pages lay out the background and basic facts of the case. In 2013, the governor signed into law Senate File 446, the budget bill covering the Department of Health and Human Services. Section 17 of that bill contained language allocating $8,859,355 “For operation of the Iowa juvenile home at Toledo and for salaries, support, maintenance, and miscellaneous purposes.” Later in 2013, Branstad appointed a task force to study conditions at the Iowa Juvenile Home and recommend ways to improve services. The task force submitted its report on October 9, and on December 9, Iowa Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer announced plans to close the home and find alternate placements for the girls who were living there. The plaintiffs charge that the governor had no authority to disallow spending that had been “legally appropriated for the operation of the Toledo Home.”

The Branstad administration had asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit, on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue and “have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Pages 5 through 8 explain why the judge rejected the request for dismissal. State legislators have standing “to protect the effectiveness of their votes,” and AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan has standing to represent his union’s members, who were laid off when the Iowa Juvenile Home closed.

Pages 8 through 16 cover the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. Judge Rosenberg found that they met their burden of proof, and he wasn’t impressed by the Branstad administration’s legal arguments. Excerpt from pages 12-13:

However, as pointed out, the amounts so appropriated from the General Fund are to be for the purposes stated “or so much thereof as is necessary.” The Defendants argue that the clause “or so much thereof as is necessary” means that the Defendants can, in their discretion, decide to spend none of the amounts appropriated under the legislation for the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo, Iowa. By a plain reading of the legislation such a definition is absurd and disingenuous.

Clearly, not only does Senate File 446 appropriate money for the operation of the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo, Iowa, but several other statutes contained in the Code of Iowa anticipate that the Home is operational and in existence. […]

Plaintiffs are entitled to relief because the actions of the Defendants constitute an act or omission that would greatly and irreparably injure the Plaintiffs. In addition, it appears the Defendants are threatening to do or have, in face, already committed an act which violates the Plaintiffs’ rights: the ignoring or contravention of a duly enacted law of the Iowa Legislature. There is also a likelihood of success on the merits.

Judge Rosenberg further argued that allowing an executive branch official to “unilaterally frustrate and, in effect, change the laws as duly enacted by the Iowa Legislature cannot be allowed.”

On page 14 the judge swatted down the argument that Iowa taxpayers benefit from money not being spent as appropriated by the legislature. He noted,

If the Governor of the State of Iowa decided that the Toledo home should not operate, he had the opportunity to end its operation when the appropriations bill was placed upon his desk for signature. At that point, the governor could have vetoed the bill. To later, however, decide that the Toledo home should no longer operate under any circumstances is not only a failure to carry out his constitutional duties to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, but is an affront to the very purpose and establishment of our governmental institutions as adopted by the constitution of the State of Iowa with the approval of the people of the State of Iowa. The danger in allowing such an action to happen is the destruction of our republican form of government itself and the democracy which it is designed to serve for the general welfare of all of its citizens.

No citation is needed in recognizing that we are a nation of laws and not a nation of men and women.

I assume the Branstad administration will appeal this ruling, but so far officials have only confirmed that they are reviewing it. Reopening the Iowa Juvenile Home will not be straightforward, as the teenage girls have been relocated to many different facilities. Also, some of the employees laid off no longer live in the area.

The Des Moines Register published this comment from Governor Branstad:

“The governor’s utmost concern is the health, safety and education of the children who did not receive adequate care at the Iowa Juvenile Home. Because the children weren’t receiving the education they deserve and their safety and treatment were being compromised, Gov. Branstad believed seeking alternative court-ordered placements in licensed and accredited facilities – or in their own homes – was in the best interest of the children. … The decision to seek alternative placement for the youth was a decision the governor didn’t make lightly and was made only after the governor met with Disability Rights Iowa and appointed and received recommendations of the independent Iowa Juvenile Home Protection Task Force.”

Statement from Danny Homan, one of the plaintiffs and president of AFSCME Iowa Council 61, the union that represented most people who worked at the Iowa Juvenile Home before its closure:

“We are pleased that the court has sided with the plaintiffs by opening the Iowa Juvenile Home. Iowa’s young girls are the real winners in this decision.

“For the sake of the safety of Iowa’s children, the governor should immediately comply with this court order and reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home as instructed by the District Court.”

Iowa Senate press release (Steve Sodders and Jack Hatch are plaintiffs in the lawsuit):

Reopening Iowa Juvenile Home is good news

for Iowa’s troubled children

The next step, the bipartisan effort to repair the damage, will take time

Below are statements from two State Senators regarding an Iowa District Court Judge’s decision that orders Governor Branstad to reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home:

State Senator Steve Sodders of State Center:

“This is great news for Iowa’s troubled children, their families and their communities. Governor Branstad’s hasty, behind-closed-doors decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home disrupted their lives.   Today, I ask the Governor to end his unilateral decision-making and to join our bipartisan efforts to ensure that struggling Iowa girls to have the best chance possible to succeed.  I am thankful for the support that juvenile court officers, state and local officials, former Juvenile Home staffers, and the Toledo community have shown the campaign to reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home.”

State Senator Jack Hatch of Des Moines said:

“Iowans never wanted to abandon these children.  We want instead to improve their conditions and their futures. The Senate has already begun work on legislation that will fundamentally reform how Iowa helps all troubled Iowa children, especially girls.  Governor Branstad should join the conversation about how to implement a new, more effective, and more accountable statewide approach to helping Iowa boys and girls who need serious help.”

Statement from Iowa House Minority Leader Mark Smith, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit:

Statement from House Democratic Leader Mark Smith on Court Ruling of Iowa Juvenile Home

“I’m pleased with the Court’s ruling today.  It was a terrible mistake to close the Iowa Juvenile Home and, as Branstad officials finally admitted yesterday, we know we need a facility in the state of Iowa for young women who need our help.

It’s time for the Governor to work with us on the bi-partisan bill offered in the Legislature that will not only improve our statewide assessment system for both boys and girls, but also create an accredited treatment center for females at the Iowa Juvenile Home location.”

Press release from State Senator Jack Hatch’s gubernatorial campaign:


DES MOINES – Sen. Jack Hatch released the following statement on the Polk County District Court ruling made Wednesday that ordered the reopening of the Iowa Juvenile Home for girls at Toledo:

“Today an Iowa District Court judge ruled Governor Branstad must reverse his reckless, ill-considered decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo, which housed some of the state’s most troubled youth.  This is a victory for the girls Terry Branstad put in jeopardy of serious harm to themselves or others, but it reveals a scary pattern in the way this Governor does business.

The judge is the latest in a long line of Iowans who have tried to get Terry Branstad to follow the law.  The ruling is another example of how this Governor operates above the law, without accountability or respect for the rule of law.  As the judge wrote, the Branstad administration cannot unilaterally decide which laws to obey and which laws it will not.

So far, the Governor’s actions have resulted in at least two girls running away and going missing, and we still don’t have a handle on exactly how many may have been lost.    Keeping track of at-risk children who are in the Department of Human Services (DHS) system is one of the most serious core functions of government.  At this, Branstad has failed.  A complete accounting of the whereabouts of the girls who have been lost should be provided immediately by DHS.      

My colleagues and I in the Iowa Senate will continue to investigate and seek answers, above all to protect the children involved.  But we’ll also continue to ask what so many Iowans have asked this Governor: when, sir, did you start believing you no longer needed to follow our laws?”

Statement from Iowa Democratic Party chair Scott Brennan:

“Throughout his career, Terry Branstad has tried to run this state like his personal kingdom, willfully ignoring laws and making decisions with no more input than talking with himself in a mirror.  The ruling by a Polk County District Court judge reopening the Iowa Juvenile Home is another example of Terry Branstad picking and choosing which laws he obeys and which laws he ignores, and Iowans have had enough of the reckless ways he chooses to govern our state.  What’s worse is that this is not done in the abstract – because of Branstad’s actions, young Iowa girls were thrown out into the cold and now two have gone missing.  Branstad has failed when it comes to looking out for Iowans, and we are ready to put an end to his self-proclaimed authority.  It is time for a governor who will follow the laws of this state and protect all Iowans.”

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