Iowa Supreme Court: Branstad had power to veto mental health funding

Another one for the "elections have consequences" file: The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled on November 10 that Governor Terry Branstad "did not exceed the scope of his constitutional authority" when he vetoed funds state lawmakers had approved to keep open mental health facilities in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda.

A large group of Democratic legislators, joined by the president of the public employee union AFSCME, filed suit soon after Branstad vetoed the funding in July 2015. Their lawsuit contended that Iowa Code contains language requiring the state to operate Mental Health Institutes in Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda. But last November, a Polk County District Court held that "Existing statutes are not conditions on appropriations" and "cannot limit the Governor's item veto authority." Bleeding Heartland published excerpts from Judge Douglas Staskal's decision here.

Last week's Iowa Supreme Court opinion by Justice David Wiggins affirmed Staskal's ruling but found that the District Court "failed to address" a matter of constitutional law raised by the plaintiffs. After additional analysis of the legislative intent behind language designating the facilities in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda as "state hospitals for persons with mental illness," the high court reached the same conclusion as Staskal: the governor had the power to veto funds earmarked for operating facilities he had closed. I enclose below excerpts from the opinion.

Branstad's spokesperson Ben Hammes did quite the spin job in his statement:

Today’s unanimous Supreme Court decision affirms the Governor’s action by allowing more Iowans to have access to quality mental health care and substance abuse treatment than ever before. The State’s mental health care redesign allows Iowans to access treatment in a community-based setting and through more modern means. Gov. Branstad is committed to putting patients first, improving care, increasing access and modernizing the delivery of mental health services. In fact, there are currently at any time 60-100 psychiatric inpatients beds open across the state. Iowa now maintains a robust level of access to mental health beds that are more efficiently delivered.

Nice try, Hammes. In reality, the justices did not assess either the merits of Branstad's decision to close the in-patient facilities or the quality of mental health care and substance abuse treatment in Iowa. In reality, Iowa "consistently ranks in the bottom five of all states in every single category of mental health programs and services." In reality, Iowa "ranks dead last in the country for state psychiatric beds per capita." In reality, "many Iowans with serious mental illnesses are being marooned" for weeks or months in hospitals, for lack of adequate facilities or services to monitor their care.

Click here for the full text of Justice Wiggins's opinion. The first several pages cover background facts and proceedings. Picking up on pages 9 through 11:

In their request for mandamus, the plaintiffs alleged (1) the Governor had a legal obligation and duty to faithfully execute the laws of the state; (2) the Governor violated this duty; and (3) no other plain, speedy, and adequate remedy was available in the ordinary course of law. Finally, as the basis for these requests for specific relief, the plaintiffs alleged the Iowa Code mandates the existence and continued operation of both the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes and the Governor exceeded the scope of his constitutional authority and violated provisions of the Iowa Code by vetoing the legislative appropriations intended therefore.

In granting the Governor’s summary judgment, the district court held the existing statutes in the Code constitute neither a condition on future legislative appropriations to which the item veto power does not extend nor an independent limit on its exercise external to the constitution. Though the court concluded the vetoes fell squarely within the scope of the item veto authority afforded the Governor by article III, section 16 of the Iowa Constitution, it did not make any specific conclusions with respect to the question of whether the Governor failed to faithfully execute the laws as required by article IV, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution by vetoing the legislative appropriations for the mental health institutes. Rather, after stating its conclusion that the vetoes did not violate article III, section 16, the court simply stated they violated no other constitutional provision.

Additionally, the court did not assess whether the statutory provisions relied upon by the plaintiffs mandated the continued operation of the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes. Instead, because the court concluded the content of the statutory provisions made no difference in the outcome, it simply assumed they mandated the continued operation of the mental health institutes without actually interpreting them.

Notably, the district court recognized that further analysis would be required if the petition alleged a claim involving an exercise of the pocket veto that pitted the authority granted the Governor by article III, section 16 against some constitutional limit on his power to exercise it. The order dismissing the petition acknowledged that the case would have presented a closer question if the vetoes had “placed two constitutional provisions at loggerheads.” Yet the petition alleged such a claim, and the order dismissing the petition failed to address it. Though the order stated the vetoes fell squarely within the Governor’s item veto authority under article III, section 16 and did not violate any other constitutional provision, the court reached the latter conclusion without engaging in any analysis that might explain the basis for its decision.

From the order dismissing the petition, it was unclear whether the court actually considered whether the Governor had violated article IV, section 9 by failing to faithfully execute provisions of the Iowa Code mandating the continued funding and operation of the mental health institutes as the plaintiffs claimed. In fact, the court never even cited article IV, section 9 in its order dismissing the petition, nor did it provide any analysis as to how it reached its conclusion that the vetoes did not violate any constitutional provision.

Given the content of the order dismissing the petition, it is evident the rule 1.904(2) motion sought consideration of related, solely legal issues presented to but not decided by the district court. Namely, the motion sought a ruling on the question of whether the Governor violated article IV, section 9 by vetoing the legislative appropriations intended to fund the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes and the related question of whether the Iowa Code mandated their continued funding and operation. The district court discussed neither question in the order dismissing the petition.

Because we conclude the rule 1.904(2) motion sought legal conclusions on issues presented to but not ruled upon by the district court, we conclude the plaintiffs filed the motion for a proper purpose and the filing of the motion tolled the deadline for filing the notice of appeal. Consequently, we retain jurisdiction to decide the merits of this appeal.

The next section discusses whether the Iowa Supreme Court should consider the appeal or whether the case is "moot," on the grounds that appropriations the state legislature passed in 2016 did not include funds to operate the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda institutes. Last year, the high court dismissed a legal challenge to Branstad's closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home on similar grounds. From pages 12 and 13:

The plaintiffs assert the appeal is not moot because the Iowa Code still mandates the continued existence and operation of the mental health institutes. They further argue these Code provisions, together with the constitutional provision contained in article IV, section 9 of the Iowa Constitution requiring the Governor “shall take care that the laws are faithfully executed,” require us to resolve the issue. We agree that the general assembly’s failure to appropriate funds for the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes during the 2016 legislative session does not make this case moot because the constitutional provisions and the statutes are still in force. Consequently, we must determine if the constitutional provisions and the statutes limit the Governor’s item veto power.

After sections discussing the standard for review and case law on limits to the Iowa governor's veto power, the opinion turns to the legislative intent and concludes, "we disagree with the plaintiffs' premise that Iowa Code sections 226.1 and 218.1 mandate the continued funding and operation of the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes." A review of Iowa statutes addressing "insane persons," from 1838 to the 1950s, leads the court to conclude that state lawmakers who drafted the current wording of Section 226.1 ("The state hospitals for persons with mental illness shall be designated as follows [...]") "intended the use of the phrase 'shall be designated' to ascribe specific names to the state mental health institutions, not to mandate their existence in perpetuity." According to the official explanation of a 1951 bill, "This bill is suggested by the Board of Control. It is felt that the change in the official names of the state insane hospitals would be helpful to the mental welfare of the patients therein." Continuing on page 24, Wiggins wrote,

Further, based on the principles of statutory construction, we must conclude that the general assembly’s omission of the phrase “permanently established” in the Code after 1894 altered its meaning. We cannot read into the statute what we think it ought to say.

As for the second statute plaintiffs had cited to support the claim that Iowa law "mandated the continued existence of the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes," Wiggins found "the history of section 218.1 does not lend itself to the plaintiffs’ interpretation." From pages 27 and 28:

The legislative history of section 218.1 reveals that the general assembly established the statute to name the governing structure for state institutes and to name the institutions in which that governing structure has the authority to operate.

Another fact of significance is that Iowa Code section 218.1(8) currently lists the “Iowa juvenile home.” Iowa Code § 218.1(8). However, in 2014, the general assembly ended appropriations for the operation of the juvenile home, and it subsequently closed. Homan, 864 N.W.2d at 327–28.

This fact cuts directly against the plaintiffs’ claim that section 218.1 mandates the continued operation of the institutions listed and that the general assembly can only close the institutions by amending section 218.1. Clearly, the general assembly does not believe section 218.1 mandates the operation of the facilities listed or that it must amend the statute in order for a facility listed to cease operation, because even though section 218.1 continues to list the juvenile home, it no longer exists.

Furthermore, Wiggins noted, whereas Iowa lawmakers have "adopted specific provisions for the merger and closure" of schools for the blind and deaf, "Sections 226.1 and 218.1 are silent as to any requirements or limitations on the merger or closure of the mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda."

The final paragraphs of the Iowa Supreme Court's opinion:

Ultimately, the statutory interpretation of sections 226.1 and 218.1 does not lend itself to mandate that the mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda exist in perpetuity. The legislative history of sections 226.1 and 218.1 suggests that the general assembly’s intent is to name the mental health institutes and establish a governing structure to operate those institutions. Based on the well-established principles of statutory interpretation, we cannot read into those sections of the Code more than what the general assembly has intended. Accordingly, we conclude these statutes do not limit the Governor’s ability to item veto appropriated funds for these institutions.

VI. Disposition.
We affirm the judgment of the district court finding the Governor’s exercise of his item veto did not exceed the scope of his constitutional authority and the court order dismissing the petition.

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