Sleeper Iowa Supreme Court ruling undermines constitutional protections

A little-noticed Iowa Supreme Court decision may leave Iowans more vulnerable to infringements of their constitutional rights.

Five justices held in Baldwin v. City of Estherville that government officials who can prove they “exercised all due care to conform with the requirements of the law” can’t be sued for wrongful arrests or searches and seizures. Justice Edward Mansfield’s majority opinion establishes qualified immunity for state constitutional law claims in Iowa. That legal concept means plaintiffs can’t easily sue individual officials (such as police officers) for violating their rights. The U.S. Supreme Court’s broad application of qualified immunity has become a hot topic of debate among legal scholars.

To my knowledge, no Iowa media have reported on Baldwin, which was overshadowed by higher-profile split decisions the state Supreme Court filed on the same day in June: namely, a landmark 5-2 abortion rights ruling and a 4-3 ruling that allowed a county attorney to return to his job despite a well-documented history of sexual harassment.

But dissenting Justice Brent Appel warned the Baldwin majority opinion may encourage abuses of power: “Rather than follow the state’s motto, ‘Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain,’ the majority follows an approach that suggests ‘Our Liberties Are Transient and Our Rights Are Expendable.’” Professor Mark Kende, director of Drake University’s Constitutional Law Center, told Bleeding Heartland last month that Baldwin could be an “‘under the radar’ big deal case.”

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Kent Sorenson's prison sentence will stand

A panel of judges on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously found that U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt did not abuse his discretion by sentencing former State Senator Kent Sorenson to 15 months in prison. Federal prosecutors had recommended probation after Sorenson admitted to taking money in exchange for endorsing Ron Paul for president, citing his cooperation with investigations of former Paul campaign operatives. But Pratt concluded that “Defendant’s conduct, viewed through the lens of America’s traditional understanding of the profound evils of political corruption, requires a substantial sentence.” A term of probation would not “reflect the seriousness” of his offenses, nor would it “deter others from engaging in similar criminal conduct.”

Sorenson appealed the sentence on several grounds. The Appeals Court found Pratt was not required to consider the value of Sorenson’s campaign work as a mitigating factor, nor was he wrong to consider the senator’s public office when imposing a sentence. I enclose below today’s full decision from the Eighth Circuit panel. You can read the District Court’s lengthy sentencing memorandum here.

Sorenson began serving time in March at a federal prison in Illinois. According to a September blog post by Shawnee Sorenson, her husband will transfer to a halfway house in January to finish his sentence. She had previously accused Judge Pratt of imposing a harsh punishment as “retribution for the work Kent did to unseat three unlawful Supreme Court Justices and unseat a current Supreme Court Justices [sic] wife.” Sorenson campaigned against retaining three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010, the same year he defeated Democratic State Senator Staci Appel. Her husband, Brent Appel, continues to serve on the high court.

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How Iowa could have lost three Supreme Court justices in 2016

Remember how awful you felt on November 9, 2016, as you started to grasp what we were up against following the most devastating Iowa election in decades?

Would you believe the results could have been even worse?

Imagine Governor Terry Branstad appointing three right-wingers to the Iowa Supreme Court. It could have happened if conservative groups had targeted Chief Justice Mark Cady, Justice Brent Appel, and Justice Daryl Hecht with the resources and fervor they had applied against three justices in 2010.

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Election results thread: Dark days ahead

Polls just closed in Iowa. Considered a heavy favorite to win the electoral college, Hillary Clinton is in serious danger of losing the presidency. Results from swing states to the east suggest that Donald Trump is outperforming Mitt Romney in heavily white working-class and rural areas. That doesn’t bode well for our state, even if early vote numbers suggested Clinton might have a chance.

Most of the battleground state House and Senate districts are overwhelmingly white. Republicans have been able to outspend Democrats in almost all of the targeted races. We could be looking at a GOP trifecta in Iowa for the first time since 1998.

I’ll be updating this post regularly as Iowa results come in. The Secretary of State will post results here.

No surprise: the U.S. Senate race was called for Chuck Grassley immediately. He led all the late opinion polls by comfortable double-digit margins.

The rest of the updates are after the jump.

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A look at the campaign to retain Iowa's Supreme Court justices

The last three Iowa Supreme Court justices involved in the landmark 2009 marriage equality ruling are on the ballot this year: Chief Justice Mark Cady (author of the Varnum v Brien decision) and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht. However, this year’s Iowa judicial retention elections aren’t getting much attention, largely because social conservative groups decided not to engage heavily in the fight.

By this point in 2010, television commercials calling for a “no” vote on three Iowa Supreme Court justices had been on the air for six weeks. Bob Vander Plaats and allies were holding “Judge Bus” events across Iowa. In a radio ad, Representative Steve King urged listeners to “vote ‘no’ on Judges [Marsha] Ternus, [Michael] Streit and [David] Baker” to “send a message against judicial arrogance.” For about a month before the 2012 general election, conservative groups paid for tv ads asking Iowans to “hold [Justice] David Wiggins accountable for redefining marriage and legislating from the bench.”

In contrast, Vander Plaats and like-minded Iowans have made a lower-key case against Cady, Appel, and Hecht, largely relying on e-mail, social media postings, and letters to the editor. They probably realized a full-court press was unlikely to succeed in a presidential election year. Nor did they have a way to fund a more extensive anti-retention campaign, with the biggest donor from 2010 and 2012 staying on the sidelines this year.

Supporters of retaining the Supreme Court justices are taking no chances, though. Two groups are leading the fight to persuade and remind voters to mark “yes” for all Iowa judges, especially Cady, Appel, and Hecht. I enclose below a sampling of messages from the Justice Not Politics coalition and the Iowa State Bar Association.

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Group polled Iowans on Supreme Court retention vote (updated)

Leaders of the campaigns to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 and 2012 have chosen not to engage in this year’s retention elections, which will decide whether the last three justices who participated in Iowa’s marriage equality ruling will stay on the bench.

However, the coalition formed to stop “extremists from hijacking Iowa’s courts” is taking no chances. Justice Not Politics commissioned a statewide poll last week to gauge voters’ attitudes toward Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht, as well as some issues related to controversial Iowa Supreme Court rulings.

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