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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Plaintiffs challenging Iowa judicial changes face uphill climb (updated)

A Linn County attorney and eight Iowa House Democrats are challenging the new law that altered the composition of the State Judicial Nominating Commission and the term of the Iowa Supreme Court chief justice.

Republican lawmakers approved the changes as an amendment to the “standings” budget bill on the final day of the 2019 legislative session. Governor Kim Reynolds signed the bill on May 8, giving herself and future governors nearly unchecked power to choose judges for Iowa’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The plaintiffs are not claiming the legislature lacked the power to change the commission’s membership through a statute. Although most of Iowa’s judicial selection system is spelled out in the state constitution, which takes years to amend, a loophole in Article V, Section 16 specified the manner of forming judicial nominating commissions only “Until July 4, 1973, and thereafter unless otherwise provided by law.”

Rather, the lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court on May 14 cites two constitutional violations related to the process by which the law passed and one violation related to the separation of powers.

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10 years of marriage equality in Iowa

Ten years ago today, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held in Varnum v Brien that the state’s Defense of Marriage Act “violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution.”

Justice Mark Cady wrote the opinion, which cost three of his colleagues (Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, Justice David Baker, and Justice Michael Streit) their jobs in the 2010 judicial retention elections. Assigned the task of writing by random drawing, Cady “strongly believed the court should speak in one voice” on such a controversial matter, Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen wrote in their 2015 book Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality. In fact, Cady “was convinced there was no room for even a concurring opinion–an opinion in agreement with the court’s conclusion but not its reasoning.” (pp. 134-5)

Thousands of Iowans have enjoyed a better quality of life since our state became the third to give LGBTQ couples the right to marry. Lambda Legal, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Iowa couples, has posted a timeline of key events in the case. State Senator Zach Wahls wrote today about the Supreme Court decision’s impact on his family.

I wanted to mark this day by sharing highlights from Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of that historic event. My deepest condolences go out to the friends and relatives of former Supreme Court Justice Daryl Hecht. The Iowa Judicial Branch announced today that Hecht has died. He stepped down from the bench in December 2018 while battling melanoma. Of the seven justices who joined the Varnum opinion, only Cady, Brent Appel, and David Wiggins still serve on the high court.

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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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The 18 most-viewed Bleeding Heartland posts of 2018

Sometimes I feel nostalgic for my “past life” covering Russian politics. Social media didn’t exist, and my colleagues and I had no information about which articles most interested our readers. Potential for clicks or shares didn’t factor into our story selection. We wrote up what seemed important to us.

On any given day, a half-dozen or more newsworthy Iowa politics stories present themselves, but I only have the capacity to cover one or two. I look for ways to add value: can I highlight events not covered elsewhere? Can I offer a different perspective or more context on the story everyone’s talking about?

Although chasing traffic will never be my primary goal, doing this for more than a decade has given me a decent sense of which topics will strike a chord with readers. But you never really know. Just like last year and the year before that, surprises lurked in the traffic numbers on Bleeding Heartland posts published during 2018 (353 written by me, 202 by other authors).

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