Iowa chief justice should settle questions about judge's legitimacy

Potential legal challenges loom over every case District Court Judge Jason Besler handles unless Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady intervenes to ensure that Besler lawfully holds his current position.

Cady has not signed any document filling the Judicial District 6 vacancy, judicial branch communications director Steve Davis confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on October 2. Davis has declined further comment on questions surrounding the legality of Governor Kim Reynolds’ appointment of Besler.

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Exclusive: How Kim Reynolds got away with violating Iowa's constitution

Governor Kim Reynolds swore an oath to “support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of Iowa.” But when she missed a deadline for filling a district court vacancy in June, she did not follow the process outlined in Iowa’s constitution.

Public records obtained by Bleeding Heartland indicate that Reynolds did not convey her choice for Judicial District 6 to anyone until four days after her authority to make the appointment had lapsed. Nevertheless, staff assured the news media and Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady that the governor had named Judge Jason Besler on time.

Reynolds and Secretary of State Paul Pate later signed an appointment and commission certificate that was backdated, creating the impression the governor had acted within the constitutionally-mandated window.

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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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Why did Kim Reynolds dodge questions about her Iowa Supreme Court choice?

Governor Kim Reynolds will hold less frequent press conferences for the duration of this year’s campaign, her staff acknowledged this week after persistent questioning by political reporter Barbara Rodriguez. The governor’s spokesperson downplayed the significance of abandoning the weekly presser, an Iowa tradition Governor Bob Ray established and Terry Branstad and Tom Vilsack maintained. All public events on Reynolds’ schedule would provide opportunities for journalists to ask questions, Rodriguez was told on July 31.

That promise didn’t hold up well. The very next day, Reynolds read carefully from written remarks when announcing District Court Judge Susan Christensen as her choice for the Iowa Supreme Court. Christensen briefly thanked her family, friends, and colleagues, and promised to support the constitution. End scene, with no question time for the assembled media. The governor’s staff also ignored my written inquiry related to the Supreme Court appointment.

It’s not hard to guess why Reynolds would block journalists from asking her or Christensen about the process for selecting the first new justice to join Iowa’s high court in seven and a half years.

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Three Iowa Supreme Court finalists, in their own words

After eight years as an all-male club, the Iowa Supreme Court will soon gain its third ever woman justice.

Members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission submitted three names to Governor Kim Reynolds on July 10: District Court Judge Susan Christensen of Harlan, private attorney Terri Combs of West Des Moines, and District Court Chief Judge Kellyann Lekar of Waterloo. Within the next 30 days, Reynolds must choose one of those women to replace retiring Justice Bruce Zager.

Follow me after the jump for highlights from each finalist’s application and remarks before the commission.

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