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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Matthew McDermott to continue Iowa Supreme Court's rightward march

Governor Kim Reynolds on April 3 named Des Moines attorney Matthew McDermott to succeed retiring Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins. During seventeen years in private practice, McDermott has worked on a wide variety of cases. Bleeding Heartland posted lengthy excerpts from his application and interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission last month.

This appointment will continue the Iowa Supreme Court’s sharp turn to the right since 2018. As Bleeding Heartland discussed when McDermott was a finalist for the previous vacancy, he has worked closely with influential Republicans and handled some politically charged cases. He defended the 2017 collective bargaining law on behalf of the state and represented an Iowa House Republican seeking not to count 29 absentee ballots his constituents had cast on time.

On the other hand, McDermott has done a substantial amount of criminal defense work, and his application highlighted an unsuccessful appeal raising Fourth Amendment issues as one of his significant cases. Wiggins was a consistent voice for individual rights on the Supreme Court, including in many search and seizure cases.

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Susan Christensen is least experienced Iowa chief justice in decades

Less than nineteen months after being appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court, Susan Christensen is now that body’s chief justice. Justice David Wiggins had served as acting leader on the high court since the unexpected passing of Chief Justice Mark Cady in November.

When Governor Kim Reynolds, Republican lawmakers, and one or more Supreme Court justices schemed last year to end Cady’s term early, Justice Thomas Waterman was widely seen as the chief-in-waiting. However, by the time Reynolds appointed Cady’s replacement, Dana Oxley, in late January, multiple sources indicated Waterman was no longer interested in the job. The seven justices elected Christensen on February 24.

It’s been many years since a justice has risen so quickly to the Iowa Supreme Court’s most senior position.

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