Susan Christensen is least experienced Iowa chief justice in decades

Less than nineteen months after being appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court, Susan Christensen is now that body’s chief justice. Justice David Wiggins had served as acting leader on the high court since the unexpected passing of Chief Justice Mark Cady in November.

When Governor Kim Reynolds, Republican lawmakers, and one or more Supreme Court justices schemed last year to end Cady’s term early, Justice Thomas Waterman was widely seen as the chief-in-waiting. However, by the time Reynolds appointed Cady’s replacement, Dana Oxley, in late January, multiple sources indicated Waterman was no longer interested in the job. The seven justices elected Christensen on February 24.

It’s been many years since a justice has risen so quickly to the Iowa Supreme Court’s most senior position.

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Rapid Iowa Supreme Court turnover to continue as David Wiggins retires

After nearly eight years with no vacancy, the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court is about to lose its fourth justice in less than two years.

Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins announced on January 10 that he will retire, effective March 13. He has served on the Iowa Supreme Court since Governor Tom Vilsack appointed him in 2003.

Wiggins chaired the State Judicial Nominating Commission from 2011 until the spring of 2019, when Republican legislators approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law removing that role from the second most-senior justice. The same law also shortened the chief justice’s term and gave the governor an additional appointment to the body that recommends candidates for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

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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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Where things stand with Republican bills targeting Iowa workers

Republican attacks on working Iowans have received less attention this year than in 2017, when new laws shredded public employee collective bargaining rights, blocked local governments from raising the minimum wage, and reduced workers’ compensation benefits, especially for those who hurt their shoulder on the job.

But below the radar, GOP lawmakers have moved several bills lately that would make life harder for working people, including some facing the difficult circumstances of unemployment or workplace injury.

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