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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Rapid Iowa Supreme Court turnover to continue as David Wiggins retires

After nearly eight years with no vacancy, the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court is about to lose its fourth justice in less than two years.

Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins announced on January 10 that he will retire, effective March 13. He has served on the Iowa Supreme Court since Governor Tom Vilsack appointed him in 2003.

Wiggins chaired the State Judicial Nominating Commission from 2011 until the spring of 2019, when Republican legislators approved and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law removing that role from the second most-senior justice. The same law also shortened the chief justice’s term and gave the governor an additional appointment to the body that recommends candidates for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

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