Iowa Supreme Court dismisses case on Iowa Juvenile Home closure

This morning the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a lawsuit brought by Democratic state lawmakers and a public employee union leader to challenge the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home without legislative input in the middle of the 2014 fiscal year. The seven justices reversed a Polk County District Court ruling from February 2014, which had ordered the Branstad administration to reopen the home.

The full text of Justice Edward Mansfield’s decision is available here (pdf). Follow me after the jump for key points and excerpts. The central factor in the ruling was the Iowa legislature’s failure to appropriate funds to operate the Iowa Juvenile Home for the 2015 fiscal year.

Today’s news is a classic example of elections having consequences. Had Democrats recaptured the Iowa House majority in 2012, which could easily have happened with better allocation of resources, lawmakers in both chambers would have funded the home for girls during the 2014 legislative session. That in turn would have prompted the Iowa Supreme Court to view the lawsuit over the juvenile home closure differently.

Justice Mansfield summarized the court’s reasoning on page 2 of today’s ruling:

During the 2013 legislative session, the Iowa General Assembly appropriated funds for the operation of the Iowa Juvenile Home (IJH) in Toledo for the 2014 fiscal year (July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014). Approximately five months into that fiscal year, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) decided to close the home and find alternative, judicially approved placements for the twenty-one girls who resided there.

Two state senators, two state representatives, and the president of the labor organization representing employees at the IJH filed suit against the Governor and the director of DHS. In addition to other relief, the plaintiffs sought a determination that the defendants’ refusal to spend appropriated funds to continue operating the IJH was unconstitutional. Agreeing with the plaintiffs, the district court entered a temporary injunction preventing closure of the IJH.

The Governor and the DHS director sought interlocutory review of this injunction. We granted their request and stayed the injunction pending appeal. Meanwhile, the general assembly declined to fund ongoing operations of the IJH for the 2015 fiscal year (July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015).

The Governor and the DHS director raise several arguments as to why the injunction was wrongly entered. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, contend the injunction was properly granted. We decline to reach either side’s arguments. Instead, we determine the case is moot because the legislature is no longer appropriating funds for the operation of the IJH. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand with instructions to dismiss the case as moot.

Pages 3-6 of the ruling cover the details on the Iowa legislature’s funding for the juvenile home during the 2014 fiscal year and the events leading up to the Branstad administration’s decision to close the home.

Pages 6-7 cover the main legal arguments of the plaintiffs who filed suit in January 2014 to prevent the home’s closure, as well as arguments on behalf of Governor Terry Branstad and Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer, which sought to have the case dismissed.

Pages 8-10 cover the Polk County District Court’s hearing of the case and the February 2014 ruling, which granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against closing the Iowa Juvenile Home. Mansfield notes,

The court went on to state that it considered the case likely to succeed on the merits because “the actions of the Defendants, and, in particular, the Governor of the State of Iowa, allowing an appointee to unilaterally frustrate and, in effect, change the laws as duly enacted by the Iowa Legislature cannot be allowed.” It elaborated:

If the Department of Human Services and the Toledo facility could operate with some amount less than the $8,859,355.00 appropriated, so be it. But to totally eliminate the operations of the Toledo Home under the guise of the language “or so much thereof as is necessary” is to essentially ignore the laws of the State of Iowa as enacted lawfully by the General Assembly and allows the Executive branch to unilaterally decide which laws it will obey and which laws it will not.

The Iowa Supreme Court “granted the defendants’ application for interlocutory appeal on February 21 [2014]. At the same time, we stayed the district court proceedings and the temporary injunction.”

On page 10, Mansfield discusses the Iowa legislature’s appropriations for “juvenile institutions” in the fiscal year 2015 budget. Here’s where we get to elections having consequences. Instead of allocating funds for “operation” of the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, the DHS budget bill allocated funds for “the costs of security, building and grounds maintenance, utilities, salary, and support for the facilities located at” the juvenile home.

Starting on page 11, Mansfield discusses the Iowa Supreme Court’s standard of review for the case.

The parties disagree whether the plaintiffs have standing to sue. […]

The parties also disagree on the merits-namely, whether the Governor and the director of DHS could lawfully stop spending money to operate the IJH. […]

Here, however, we confront a threshold question-whether the litigation is now moot because, in the 2014 legislative session, the legislature ended appropriations for the operation of the IJH.

A discussion of “the doctrine of mootness” begins on page 12. “Courts exist to decide cases, not academic questions of law. For this reason, a court will generally decline to hear a case when, because of changed circumstances, the court’s decision will no longer matter.”

Mansfield pointed to several Iowa cases in which lawsuits were dismissed for that reason. His ruling then states on page 14,

We believe this case is likewise moot. The plaintiffs did not seek any monetary relief, only a declaratory judgment and a court order barring the closure of the IJH. During the 2014 legislative session, the legislature decided to close the IJH. […] Our resolution of the present case will not affect that outcome.

The ruling goes on to discuss some case law from Illinois and federal courts as well as from Iowa, then notes on page 16:

Even if a case is moot, we may nonetheless choose to decide it under certain circumstances. The potentially relevant exception here is the so-called public-importance exception: “An exception to the general rule [against deciding moot cases] exists where matters of public importance are presented and the problem is likely to recur.”

Pages 17 and 18 give examples of the Iowa Supreme Court agreeing to hear moot cases. From pages 18 through 20:

Clearly, the issue raised by this case is one of public importance. In another area involving the limits of executive branch authority, namely, the line-item veto, we have on several occasions applied the public-importance exception to mootness, deciding to hear cases even after the term of the affected appropriations expired. […]

Yet this case is different. We have seen line-item-veto cases with some regularity since the Governor was given line-item veto authority by a 1968 constitutional amendment. […] By contrast, a computer-aided review of this court’s 175 years of caselaw does not reveal any previous case where we were called upon to interpret article IV, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution-let alone decide the constitutionality of an impoundment. We are not persuaded that the question of the Governor’s impoundment authority will recur any time soon.

If it does recur, it is likely to be framed somewhat differently. […]

Perhaps most importantly, the general assembly clearly could have kept this case alive if it had appropriated funds for the continued operation of the IJH during the 2014 legislative session (and if necessary, overridden the Governor’s veto). Instead, the legislative branch, in effect, acquiesced in the executive branch’s action while the case was pending.

Like I said, elections have consequences. Add this to the long list of problems stemming from Democrats leaving the Iowa House majority on the table in 2012.

UPDATE: Branstad’s communications director Jimmy Centers responded to my request for comment:

Governor Branstad’s top priority has always been the health, safety and education of the girls formerly served at the Iowa Juvenile Home. The facts show delinquent girls and girls classified as Children in Need of Assistance (CINA) are being more effectively and accountably served by the private system now in place. Gov. Branstad is committed to ensuring Iowa responsibly meets the needs of delinquent youth in Iowa in both private and public capacities.

We respect the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision upholding the actions taken to better serve Iowa’s youth.  In 2014, Gov. Branstad and the Iowa Legislature, in bipartisan fashion, agreed in moving the system forward by serving troubled youth in licensed and accredited facilities. Today, that action was upheld.

Now that the lawsuit is settled, we look forward to working with the Toledo-area community to find a sufficient use for the campus facilities.

The Iowa Senate released this statement, featuring comments from two of the plaintiffs in the case (the other two plaintiffs, Jack Hatch and Pat Murphy, no longer serve in the legislature):

Court decision highlights Governor Branstad’s abuse of power and the failure of House Republicans to stand up for Iowa children and their families

Key legislators respond to decision regarding Iowa Juvenile Home

House Democratic Leader Mark Smith of Marshalltown:

“Time and time again, we’ve watched this Governor overstep his constitutional authority and put Iowa’s most vulnerable citizens in peril.  Closing the Juvenile Home in Toledo was a disservice for troubled girls who need support and critical services.   I won’t stop fighting to guarantee that girls in Iowa have access to the same treatment options as boys.”

State Senator Steve Sodders of Marshalltown:

“Last year, the Iowa Senate voted to help children with serious needs by continuing to fund and operate the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo. When House Republicans refused to join that effort, they opened the door for Governor Branstad to illegally stop providing essential services to families in desperate circumstances.  In order to protect the social safety net we all depend on, Iowans need a governor and a House majority that will stand up for Iowa values.”

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  • Supreme Court decision

    Have not read the decision, so won’t rush to judgment. But this raises the following question: Can any governor now safely shut down any program he doesn’t like if he knows that one house of the legislature will support him by refusing to fund it the following year, making any Supreme Court challenge “moot,” whether or not the governor’s acts are unconstitutional? How can subsequent actions bear on the legality of previous actions? Would a county attorney’s prosecution of someone for theft be moot if the store he stole from discontinued selling the stolen goods?