Court order clears path for more diverse juries in Iowa

For decades, researchers have found that all-white juries are more likely to convict Black defendants than white defendants, and that Black people “are systematically more likely to be excluded from juries in many contexts.” In addition, studies indicate diverse juries “perform their fact-finding tasks more effectively,” and have been shown to “deliberate longer, consider more facts, make fewer incorrect facts, correct themselves more, and have the benefit of a broader pool of life experiences […].”

In a 2017 decision that gave defendants of color another way to challenge unrepresentative jury pools, the Iowa Supreme Court recognized, “Empirical evidence overwhelmingly shows that having just one person of color on an otherwise all-white jury can reduce disparate rates of convictions between black and white defendants.” Yet African Americans have continued to be under-represented in Iowa jury pools and on trial juries.

A recent Iowa Supreme Court order takes a step toward addressing that disparity in the state’s criminal justice system.

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There must have been a better way

Everyone knew Iowa’s State Canvassing Board wouldn’t have the final word on the 2020 election in the second Congressional district when it certified a six-vote win for Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks on November 30. Most politics watchers expected Democratic candidate Rita Hart to file for an election contest.

Instead, the Hart campaign announced on December 2 that it will bypass Iowa’s process and appeal directly to the Democratic-controlled U.S. House.

This won’t end well.

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Iowa Supreme Court rejected calls to stop in-person bar exam

Aspiring lawyers gathered in Des Moines on July 28 and July 29, for about eight hours each day, to take Iowa’s Uniform Bar Exam in person.

More than a dozen states, accounting for about two-thirds of exam takers, postponed or otherwise altered plans to administer the grueling two-day test that determines where attorneys can practice law.

However, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected calls to shift to an online exam or offer a limited “diploma privilege” so that graduates of the University of Iowa or Drake University law schools could practice in this state without passing the bar. Instead, the judicial branch’s Office of Professional Regulation took several steps to reduce the chance exam takers could spread COVID-19 to one another.

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Republicans found shortcut around Iowa Supreme Court on abortion

Spirits lifted in the pro-choice community when Iowa House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl did not call up a constitutional amendment on abortion shortly after the legislature reconvened this month.

Republican leaders wanted to pass the amendment, which had advanced from committee months earlier. When a high-profile bill doesn’t come to the floor, it often means the majority party doesn’t have the votes for final passage.

Indeed, at least three of the 53 House Republicans resisted immense pressure to vote for legislation designed to overturn an Iowa Supreme Court ruling protecting “the constitutional right of women to terminate a pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, the holdouts agreed to a last-minute abortion restriction that may provide a faster way to undo the high court’s work.

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Iowa Judicial Branch not rushing back to normal practices

Governor Kim Reynolds has enacted three rounds of reopening businesses and venues across Iowa this month already, and bars are next in line to resume indoor service on May 28. The governor has argued, “We have to move forward” as we “learn to live with” having novel coronavirus in our communities.

However, the judicial branch is approaching the COVID-19 pandemic more cautiously. Under an order Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Susan Christensen issued on May 22, in-person bench trials will remain on hold until July 13, and jury trials won’t resume in Iowa until September 14.

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