Iowa Supreme Court extends mask mandate for courtrooms

Face masks will continue to be required in all Iowa court-controlled spaces “regardless of a person’s vaccination status,” under an order the Iowa Supreme Court issued on December 6.

Like the mask mandate the high court announced in August, the requirement to wear face coverings in spaces under the judicial branch’s jurisdiction “applies statewide and does not depend on a particular county’s or area’s positivity rate or transmission status.” It does not apply to areas of county courthouses under the control of county governments. (Some boards of supervisors, including those governing Iowa’s largest counties, have approved mask mandates for county buildings and offices.)

It’s been months since Governor Kim Reynolds encouraged, let alone required, Iowans to wear masks in indoor public spaces. Fortunately, the state’s judicial branch is empowered to set its own COVID-19 mitigation policies, and has generally followed scientific consensus about the value of face coverings to reduce transmission. The Delta variant, which has been the dominant coronavirus strain in Iowa for months, spreads easily in close quarters. Legal proceedings often force attorneys, litigants, court employees, and jurors to be in the same room for hours.

The latest order signed by Chief Justice Susan Christensen establishes several other policies and practices to adapt judicial proceedings to the pandemic, informed by recommendations from a court-appointed task force and public comments.

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Court finds law targeting trans Iowans unconstitutional

For Aiden Vasquez and Mika Covington, the news was life-changing. Polk County District Court Judge William Kelly ruled on November 19 that Iowa’s law designed to deny Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming surgery “violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.”

He ordered the Iowa Department of Human Services to change a longstanding regulation “excluding coverage for sex reassignment surgery” and said the agency must apply the revised rule to allow “transgender individuals coverage under Iowa Medicaid for medically necessary gender affirming surgery for the treatment of Gender Dysphoria and other relevant diagnoses.”

Vasquez and Covington are transgender Iowans who qualify for Medicaid and have been unable to obtain the health care they need for years. They have been seeking legal redress since soon after Governor Kim Reynolds signed the discriminatory statute in May 2019.

Naturally, not everyone was happy with what the ACLU of Iowa’s legal director Rita Bettis Austen described as a “historic win for civil rights in Iowa.” Soon after the court ruling was published on November 22, Reynolds’ spokesperson Alex Murphy told reporters, “The governor’s office is disappointed in today’s decision and disagrees with the district court’s ruling on Medicaid coverage for transgender reassignment surgeries.”

Reynolds echoed the sentiment when speaking to reporters on November 23: “Of course we were disappointed with the ruling and disagree […] My legal team is looking at it. There will be more to come later on. We’re still looking through it and trying to determine what our options are.”

She should stop fighting this battle.

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Citing misconduct, Iowa governor refuses to fill judicial vacancy

Governor Kim Reynolds has declined to fill a District Court vacancy in northern Iowa, after finding the selection process was tainted by Judge Kurt Stoebe’s “unprofessional” conduct, including favoritism toward one applicant and “significantly misleading comments” that took another applicant out of contention.

In a November 11 letter to members of the District 2B Judicial Nominating Commission, Reynolds explained why she was taking the “extraordinary step” of not proceeding with an appointment, which she said “has been done only once before,” by Governor Bob Ray.

The district nominating commission submitted two names to the governor’s office on October 12. Normally Reynolds would be required to appoint one of those candidates within 30 days. However, the governor wrote, her staff investigated after hearing serious concerns about the commission chair, District Assistant Chief Judge Kurt Stoebe. Several commissioners indicated he gave one applicant extra interview time and “coaching” during the interview.

The commissioners said Stoebe made unprofessional comments about some others who applied for the judgeship.

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The Iowa court ruling that could stop a Republican gerrymander

Terror gripped many Iowa Democratic hearts when the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) announced it would release a second redistricting plan on October 21. Governor Kim Reynolds soon scheduled a legislative session to consider the plan for October 28, the earliest date state law allows.

Democrats had hoped the LSA would spend more time working on its next plan. Iowa Code gives the agency up to 35 days to present a second set of maps. If lawmakers received that proposal in mid-November, Republicans would not be able to consider a third set of maps before the Iowa Supreme Court’s December 1 deadline for finishing redistricting work.

By submitting Plan 2 only sixteen days after Iowa Senate Republicans rejected the first redistricting plan, the LSA ensured that GOP lawmakers could vote down the second proposal and receive a third plan well before December 1. So the third map gerrymander—a scenario Bleeding Heartland has warned about for years—is a live wire.

Nevertheless, I expect Republicans to approve the redistricting plan released last week. The maps give the GOP a shot at winning all four U.S. House districts and an excellent chance to maintain their legislative majorities.

Equally important, state law and a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court precedent constrain how aggressive Republicans could be in any partisan amendment to a third LSA proposal.

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Court gives Iowa politicians until December 1 to adopt new maps

Iowa Supreme Court justices finally let the public in on the secret.

Under Iowa’s constitution, authority to enact legislative maps (but not Congressional maps) passes to the high court after September 15. But a September 14 order signed by Chief Justice Susan Christensen gives the legislature and governor until December 1 “to prepare an apportionment in accord with Iowa Code chapter 42,” which outlines the redistricting process Iowa has used since 1981.

High-ranking Republicans have indicated for months that they expected the Iowa House and Senate to be able to vote on new maps after the constitutional deadline, but the judicial branch’s spokesperson would not confirm whether justices or their representatives gave private assurances to key lawmakers. Bleeding Heartland’s request for written correspondence between the chief justice and legislative leaders produced no responsive records.

The court could have clarified months ago that it planned to proceed in this manner. But better late than never.

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One Iowa government branch follows science on COVID-19

Republican leaders in the Iowa House and Senate declined this year to require face coverings, social distancing, or other COVID-19 mitigation practices in the state capitol. Governor Kim Reynolds and her staff have been spreading misinformation and casting doubt about whether masks reduce coronavirus transmission in schools.

But one branch of state government is following the recommendations of top scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen signed an order on August 27 stating that “All people entering court-controlled areas must wear a face covering,” even if they have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

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