Moves to impeach justices would undermine Iowa courts

Bernard L. Spaeth, Jr. is chair of the Iowa State Committee of the American College of Trial Lawyers.

The Iowa State Committee of the American College of Trial Lawyers condemns impeachment threats made against Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield arising from their decision in Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, et al, v. Reynolds, No. 22-2036 (Iowa Supreme Court, June 16, 2023).

The justices voted to uphold a lower court decision that refused to vacate a four-year old injunction against the 2018 fetal heartbeat bill without new abortion legislation. The Sunday Des Moines Register on July 2 included a guest column from Bob Vander Plaats who argued their judicial act constitutes a “misdemeanor or malfeasance in office” under the Iowa constitution allowing the legislature to impeach and remove them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The truth: Impeachment is a drastic measure that has never been used in Iowa to remove a judge or justice for any reason, let alone for issuing a controversial ruling. Misdemeanors are defined as crimes punishable by fines or jail under Iowa Code sections 701.2 and 701.8; the court’s decision isn’t a “crime.”

Nor can the court’s decision constitute “malfeasance,” which in the context of removing public officials from office, requires proof by clear and convincing evidence that the accused officeholder acted with “a willful intent to do wrong [and] and evil purpose.” State v. Watkins, 914 N.W.2d 827, 837 (Iowa 2018). There is no such evidence, and thus no grounds for impeachment under Iowa’s constitution.

The three justices issued a decision based on Iowa law. Disagreement with a court decision is not grounds for impeachment, as then-Governor Terry Branstad observed in 2011, referencing the court’s Varnum decision from 2009, which recognized a right to same-sex marriage. The separation of powers and the principles governing judicial review would be undermined if legislators could simply remove judges or justices based on a decision they didn’t like.

Further, to pursue impeachment simply because Mr. Vander Plaats disagrees with the decision or because the justices vigorously debated competing interpretations of the law would damage the ability of our courts and the judges who serve Iowa to act as fair and impartial decision-makers.

Founded in 1950, the American College is dedicated to maintaining and improving the standards of trial practice, professional ethics, and the administration of justice. The College is an invitation-only fellowship of lawyers in the United States and Canada who have achieved acknowledged distinction in trial practice. The College has no ties to any political party or any partisan endeavors.

Moreover, the views set forth in this letter are supported unanimously by all nineteen members of the College’s Iowa State Committee. The State Committee is comprised of Iowa lawyers who practice all over the State and who have different political and religious affiliations.

The Mission Statement of the College underscores the critical importance to our democracy of an independent judiciary and respect for the rule of law. We write today to emphasize those principles. Judges must decide cases with faithfulness to the law, without fear or favor, and free from the influence of political storms or other external pressure.

Decisions from our courts may incite strong reactions and criticisms. Every citizen has a right to disagree with a decision, but threats of any kind put the judicial system and our democracy at risk. Likewise, any effort to diminish the independence of the decision-making process contradicts a vital element of our judicial system.

We call upon all lawyers and their professional organizations to rededicate themselves to preserving a fair and impartial court system. Our professional obligations as lawyers to our system of justice and to those who serve on the bench demand no less of us.

Top photo of Bernard L. Spaeth Jr. published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Bernard L. Spaeth Jr.