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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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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Four ways the Iowa Supreme Court may handle next big abortion case

The Iowa Supreme Court will soon revisit one of the most politically charged questions of our time.

Last week a Johnson County District Court permanently blocked the state from “implementing, effectuating or enforcing” a law requiring a 24-hour waiting period before all abortions. Judge Mitchell Turner ruled the law unconstitutional on two grounds. The state is appealing the ruling and argues that a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court precedent, which established a fundamental right to an abortion under the Iowa Constitution, was “wrongly decided.”

Republican lawmakers planned for this scenario when they approved the waiting period during the waning hours of the 2020 legislative session. They may get their wish, but a reversal of the 2018 decision is not guaranteed.

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Iowa's new qualified immunity law may not hold up in court

“Iowa’s law enforcement will always have my respect, and I will always have their back,” Governor Kim Reynolds declared while signing Senate File 342 on June 17. Sections 12 through 16 of the wide-ranging policing bill establish a “qualified immunity” standard for Iowa. Effective immediately upon the governor’s signature, state employees or law enforcement officers who violate individuals’ constitutional rights can be sued only if their conduct violated “clearly established” law, such that “every reasonable employee would have understood” the act was illegal.

The provisions were crafted to match decades-old federal qualified immunity standards, and to override an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that was more favorable to Iowans whose rights have been violated by police.

The new law will almost certainly be challenged. And while the conservative majority on the Iowa Supreme Court often defers to other branches of government, the justices may find that Senate File 342’s language on qualified immunity is incompatible with the Iowa Constitution.

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Iowa Supreme Court rejects challenge on Raccoon River water quality

Neil Hamilton is the former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center and professor emeritus at Drake University law school. He submitted an amicus curiae brief in this case on behalf of several Drake law professors, who urged the Iowa Supreme Court to define the political question doctrine narrowly in order to preserve “citizen’s access to the courts of Iowa for the vindication of their constitutional rights.”

In a closely decided 4-3 split ruling the Iowa Supreme Court rejected a case filed by Iowa Citizens for Community Action and Food and Water Watch alleging the state of Iowa failed to protect the interests of the public in the Raccoon River. The case involved an appeal from the Polk County District Court rejection of the state’s motion to dismiss the case. 

The majority ruled the district court’s decision should be reversed and the case dismissed, concluding the plaintiffs do not have standing to bring the suit, and their effort to use the public trust doctrine to establish the duty of state officials is a “nonjusticiable political question.” The majority’s ruling and analysis generated three separate dissenting opinions, all agreeing the case should move forward, in large part because the state had conceded the plaintiffs had standing and the merits of the public trust doctrine were not in question.

A reading of the majority opinion shows it was premised on a determination by the four justices to not involve the Court in the difficult and controversial political issues involving water quality in Iowa. This motivation was demonstrated in at least four ways:

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