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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Rest in peace, Bob Ray

Iowans of all political persuasions are grieving former Governor Bob Ray, who passed away on July 8 at age 89. I can’t think of any Republican more admired by Iowa Democrats. My parents canceled out each other’s votes in most elections for decades, but my mother supported Ray whenever he was on the ballot. Bill Crews, who managed the governor’s 1978 re-election campaign, remembered Ray as his “best boss and a great mentor.” Crews took the above photo on the night Iowans elected Ray to his fifth and final term.

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How Iowa's 20-week abortion ban could be overturned

Pro-choice advocates were jubilant about the Iowa Supreme Court’s landmark decision striking down a major section of a 2017 anti-abortion law.

However, the other major piece of that law remains in effect: a near-total ban on abortions beyond 20 weeks “post-fertilization.” Speaking to reporters on June 29, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa legal director Rita Bettis asserted the 20-week ban is “clearly unconstitutional and a violation of women’s fundamental rights.” She declined to say whether the ACLU will challenge that provision: “We don’t forecast our litigation strategy.”

Although I am not an attorney, I am a third-generation supporter of reproductive rights in Iowa. So I’ve been thinking about how a case could get the 20-week ban before the Iowa Supreme Court.

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Iowa Supreme Court holds state constitution protects right to abortion

Five Iowa Supreme Court justices ruled today that a mandatory 72-hour waiting period for all women seeking abortion violates due process rights and equal protection guaranteed under the state constitution. Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa had challenged that provision, part of a law Republican legislators and Governor Terry Branstad enacted in 2017.

Today’s decision guarantees that the 2018 law banning almost all abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected will be struck down. A lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood, the ACLU of Iowa, and the Emma Goldman Clinic is pending in Polk County District Court.

In addition, the ruling indicates that even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision in the coming years, Republicans will be unable to ban or severely restrict abortion rights in our state.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mark Cady rejected the “undue burden” standard for evaluating abortion restrictions, set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1992 Casey decision. I enclose below the full text of the majority opinion and the dissent by Justice Edward Mansfield, whom President Donald Trump has named as a possible U.S. Supreme Court pick. I’ve excerpted some of the most important passages.

A separate section of the 2017 law, banning almost all abortions after 20 weeks gestation, was not challenged in this case and remains in effect.

Some Iowa judicial trivia: today marks the second time the Iowa Supreme Court has overturned an abortion-related ruling by Polk County District Court Judge Jeffrey Farrell. He had also upheld the administrative rule banning the use of telemedicine for abortion. The Supreme Court unanimously struck down that rule in 2015.

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