Chief justice sheds new light on Iowa Supreme Court lobbying for judicial bill

Multiple Iowa Supreme Court justices spoke with Iowa House Republicans shortly before GOP lawmakers approved a bill that gave the governor more influence over the judicial selection process and shortened the chief justice’s term.

But only Chief Justice Mark Cady disqualified himself from considering the legal challenge to that law’s validity, and only Cady has been transparent about his communications on the issue with legislators and staff for Governor Kim Reynolds.

Justice Thomas Waterman and Justice Edward Mansfield appear to have pushed for the bill’s passage and stand to benefit from electing a new chief justice in 2021. Yet neither recused himself from hearing the case. Nor have they revealed their contacts with Republican legislators or the governor’s legal counsel Sam Langholz, despite a judicial rule calling for disclosure of information relevant to a recusal motion.

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Divided Iowa Supreme Court upholds collective bargaining law

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” four Iowa Supreme Court justices said today in two rulings that upheld the 2017 collective bargaining law.

The state’s two largest public employee labor unions, AFSCME Council 61 and the Iowa State Education Association, had challenged the law, which eliminated almost all bargaining rights for most public employees but preserved more rights for units containing at least 30 percent “public safety” employees. The ISEA also challenged a provision that banned payroll deduction for union dues.

Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the majority in both cases, joined by the court’s three other most conservative judges: Edward Mansfield, Susan Christensen, and Christopher McDonald. His ruling upheld two Polk County District Court rulings in 2017.

Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justice Brent Appel dissented from the AFSCME decision, joined by Justice David Wiggins. Appel wrote a partial concurrence and partial dissent in the ISEA case, joined by Cady and Wiggins. They would have allowed the state to end payroll deductions for union dues but struck down the part of the law that gave more bargaining rights to some workers than others. They highlighted the statute’s “illogical” classification system, under which many who receive the expanded privileges are not themselves “public safety employees,” while others “with obvious public safety responsibilities” are excluded.

Had the late Justice Daryl Hecht been able to consider this case, these decisions would likely have gone 4-3 the other way. However, Hecht stepped down while battling melanoma in December, shortly before the court heard oral arguments. Governor Kim Reynolds appointed McDonald to fill the vacancy in February. Normally new justices do not participate in rulings when they were not present for oral arguments, but the court would have been deadlocked on these cases otherwise. So file this disappointing outcome for some 180,000 public employees under E for “elections have consequences.”

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Ten things to know about the Iowa Supreme Court applicants

The State Judicial Nominating Commission will meet on January 30 to consider nineteen applicants seeking to replace Iowa Supreme Court Justice Daryl Hecht, who stepped down last month. The commission will then send Governor Kim Reynolds a list of three candidates, one of whom will be appointed to the high court within 30 days.

After reviewing the applications, I compiled some noteworthy facts about the contenders. One of them is not like the others.

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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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