Judicial ethics in Iowa differ from Washington ethics

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

There were more disclosures in recent days in the ongoing saga involving the ethical standards of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court—or, more accurately, the lack of ethical standards.

With each new disclosure about our nation’s highest court, the reputations of Iowa Supreme Court justices take on more luster—and deservedly so.

The nonprofit news outlet ProPublica reported that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received millions of dollars’ worth of luxury travel from wealthy benefactors without any public disclosure. Thomas has shrugged off concerns about the potential for a conflict of interests from his acceptance of these gifts.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch have been criticized for declining to recuse themselves from taking part in cases involving the publishing conglomerate Penguin Random House. Both justices have lucrative deals with the publisher, predating the court cases both later took part in that affected the publisher.

Their colleague Samuel Alito is in this same ethical stew. More on him shortly. 

In contrast with Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Gorsuch, Iowa justices have been guided by a different sense of propriety as they try to avoid being seen as compromising their integrity or the integrity of the Iowa Supreme Court.

After I retired from the Des Moines Register and took over leadership of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, Justice David Wiggins, with whom I was acquainted, gave me two tickets to an Iowa Cubs baseball game he could not attend. I sent a thank-you note and a check to reimburse him for what he paid for the tickets. The day my check arrived, Wiggins had a court employee return my check and explain the justice could not appear to be accepting money from someone who someday might have a case before the court.

I understood. And there were cases that came before the court later in which the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and I were involved. Wiggins retired in 2020. 

In April, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in my favor and in favor of two other plaintiffs in our lawsuit challenging Governor Kim Reynolds’ lengthy delays in filling requests for public records. Justice Edward Mansfield did not take part in the case. 

He never explained his reason. Knowledgeable court watchers said the father of another plaintiff, Bleeding Heartland blogger Laura Belin, had been a law partner of Mansfield’s, and one of the defendants in the case, Michael Boal, had once clerked for Mansfield.

In June, the Iowa Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 on the question of whether to reinstate the 2018 law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. Because of the tie vote, an injunction remained in place and prevented the near-total abortion ban from taking effect. 

The deadlock occurred because the seventh justice, Dana Oxley, did not take part in the decision. As with Mansfield, she never explained why. But court watchers took note she was a former partner of the attorney representing the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City, one of the parties challenging the law.

The ethical positions taken by Wiggins, Mansfield, and Oxley all grow from a belief judges have an obligation to hold themselves to a standard of conduct that does not bring discredit to the court or even hint at favoritism—factors that would diminish the respect, credibility and confidence in our courts.

A lot of tarnish has occurred at the national level, however, as the murky ethical standards for U.S. Supreme Court justices and their acceptance of gifts become better known. And these are gifts with a value far beyond a $20 check for Iowa Cubs tickets.

Investigative reporters at ProPublica found Justice Alito did not disclose an all-expenses-paid fishing trip to Alaska in 2008, which included private jet travel between Washington and a fishing lodge that normally charges guests $1,000 per night. This was not a fishing cabin like my friend Tony owns, which has neither electricity nor any indoor plumbing. 

Hedge fund manager Paul

Hedge fund manager Paul Singer, who has been involved in ten cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, covered the cost of the private jet for the Alaska trip. (A California mortgage company owner, Robert Arkley II, covered the cost of the fishing resort.) One of Singer’s cases ended in 2014—after the fishing trip—with Singer receiving a $2.4 billion windfall because of the court’s decision. Alito voted in favor of Singer’s side.

Alito brushed aside notions of the appearance of a conflict. He pooh-poohed his relationship with Singer, calling him a casual acquaintance. 

But ProPublica reported that Indiana University law professor Charles Geyh said of Alito’s trip, “If you weren’t good friends, what were you doing accepting this? If you were good friends, what were you doing ruling on this case?”

Bingo! This was not the same as taking part in a case involving McDonald’s even though you eat Egg McMuffins a few times in a year.

ProPublica reported that over the course of 25 years, real estate developer Harlan Crow has provided Thomas and his wife with at least 38 luxury vacations around the globe and flights on Crow’s private jet and helicopter. In 2014, Crow purchased the simple one-story home in Savannah, Georgia, owned by Thomas’ elderly mother. She still lives there at no charge. Crow paid $133,300 for the house and two vacant lots. He now pays about $1,500 a year in property taxes on the house—an expense the justice had borne before Crow’s purchase.

Questions concerning the appearance of conflicts include New York state Judge Juan Merchan, who is presiding over the criminal case there against Donald Trump. Merchan brought embarrassment to the courts when he contributed $15 to Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020 and made $10 donations to Progressive Turnout Project, a voter outreach group, and to Stop Republicans, a group with leanings that are not secret.

The donations were small, just as my payment for those baseball tickets was. But the appearance of ethical concerns is not trivial, and that was what Justice Wiggins wanted to avoid.

Editor’s note: The column has been updated to clarify that Paul Singer paid for the private jet that Alito used, while another businessman paid for the justice’s stay at the Alaska fishing resort.

Top photo of Iowa Supreme Court building by Steve Cukrov, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

Randy Evans