Iowa Supreme Court rejects challenge on Raccoon River water quality

Neil Hamilton is the former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center and professor emeritus at Drake University law school. He submitted an amicus curiae brief in this case on behalf of several Drake law professors, who urged the Iowa Supreme Court to define the political question doctrine narrowly in order to preserve “citizen’s access to the courts of Iowa for the vindication of their constitutional rights.”

In a closely decided 4-3 split ruling the Iowa Supreme Court rejected a case filed by Iowa Citizens for Community Action and Food and Water Watch alleging the state of Iowa failed to protect the interests of the public in the Raccoon River. The case involved an appeal from the Polk County District Court rejection of the state’s motion to dismiss the case. 

The majority ruled the district court’s decision should be reversed and the case dismissed, concluding the plaintiffs do not have standing to bring the suit, and their effort to use the public trust doctrine to establish the duty of state officials is a “nonjusticiable political question.” The majority’s ruling and analysis generated three separate dissenting opinions, all agreeing the case should move forward, in large part because the state had conceded the plaintiffs had standing and the merits of the public trust doctrine were not in question.

A reading of the majority opinion shows it was premised on a determination by the four justices to not involve the Court in the difficult and controversial political issues involving water quality in Iowa. This motivation was demonstrated in at least four ways:

First, the majority used a new and somewhat strained interpretation of standing, involving tests not previously applied in Iowa from a federal case neither side had argued, to find the plaintiff’s claims did not show adequate causation and were not redressable. It reached the conclusion even though the state had conceded the plaintiffs had standing.

Second, the majority rendered a narrow interpretation of the scope of the public trust doctrine, focusing on river access rather than the broader and accepted inclusion of recreation, even though the state had not challenged the plaintiff’s claims how the doctrine applied in the case.

Third, at several points the majority said the merits of the plaintiff’s claims were not before the Court, but it spent over ten pages of the ruling essentially considering the merits and possible judicial outcomes, to ultimately conclude the case involved nonjusticiable political questions. As Justice Dana Oxley said in dissent, “That the majority has decided the merits of the public trust issue is best seen in its discussion of the political question doctrine” explaining how it was not persuaded by the plaintiff’s showing.

Fourth, the majority ruling dismissing the case was described by the dissenters as being premature. In the words of Justice Brent Appel, the newly discovered elements of standing were “astonishingly applied at the motion to dismiss stage of litigation to dismiss cases involving important state constitutional issues.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Edward Mansfield made a concluding comment which may crystallize variations in judicial philosophy:

In the end, we believe it would exceed our institutional role to “hold the State accountable to the public.” Those words, used by the plaintiffs to describe what they ask of us, go beyond the accepted role of the courts and would entangle us in overseeing the political branches of government.

Some observers might ask, if it is not the role of the Iowa Supreme Court to hold the State accountable to the public, then who does have that role?

Editor’s note: Chris Jones analyzed the implications of this Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling at his blog. Excerpt:

Over the past 20 years, the ag establishment and the watershed’s farmers have made a mockery of efforts to improve the drinking water source serving 1/6th of Iowa’s people, and Iowa’s appointed and elected leaders, including supreme court justices, have for the most part endorsed this. Supported by Iowa’s economic and political establishment, the larger body of the watershed’s farmers have no intention of trying to reduce nutrient pollution, and this has always been so.

Full text of Iowa Supreme Court majority ruling by Justice Edward Mansfield, joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Matthew McDermott, and three dissenting opinions by Justices Brent Appel, Dana Oxley, and Christopher McDonald.

Top image of Neil Hamilton published with permission.

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Neil Hamilton

  • Say what?

    I’m not a lawyer so I’m grateful for the analysis posted here.

    “In the end, we believe it would exceed our institutional role to “hold the State accountable to the public.”

    …..really, Iowa?

  • Thank you!

    I really appreciate this careful dissection of the decision. That “determination by the four justices” is very disappointing but not surprising. They have now joined the long line of high-placed Iowans who have essentially played dodgeball with Iowa’s dirty water problem. I’m grateful to those, including the Drake law professors, who have acted otherwise.