A quick look at what remains on the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2015-2016 docket

By: Rox Laird on April 25th, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court is headed toward the home stretch of its current term, with 71 decisions on the books and 29 yet to be decided.

Among the questions yet to be decided is defining what the Iowa Constitution means by “infamous crimes” that deny voting rights to convicted criminals. (Griffin v. Pate; see “Griffin v. Pate: Does the meaning of ‘infamous crime’ come down to what Justice Appel thinks?” for background).

The outcome of a medical malpractice lawsuit against a Des Moines pain doctor no doubt will generate news (Estate of Gray v. Baldi; see “Iowa Supreme Court to hold evening argument in case involving the death of a rock star and the constitutional rights of the unborn”).

And the court also has yet to rule on the question of whether you in effect quit your job if you spend nearly a month in jail on charges that are later dismissed (see “Iowa Supreme Court takes up unemployment case involving jailed employee”).

The court heard its final oral argument for its 2015-16 term in Clinton on April 14, and the justices are now devoting their energies to writing the remaining opinions. Decisions are expected in those cases by the end of June, and the court will then move to an administrative break when it considers rules changes and other judicial administration matters.

Among the oldest cases still to be decided are four argued last September, with the bulk of undecided cases argued in March and April.

In addition to the voting rights, unemployment and Baldi cases,  there is always the possibility that any one of the rulings expected in the coming weeks will contain surprises. Stay tuned.

[UPDATE: This post was amended to correct the number of outstanding decisions.]


UPDATE: Eighth Circuit denies ISU’s request for a stay

By: Rox Laird on April 8th, 2016

The Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a two-sentence order has denied Iowa State University’s motion for a stay of U.S. District Judge James Gritzner’s January ruling that the university violated the First Amendment rights of students advocating reform of marijuana laws. (See Wednesday’s post for more background on this case.)


ISU asks Eighth Circuit to stop marijuana advocates from using the university’s logo

By: Rox Laird on April 6th, 2016

Iowa State University students advocating marijuana law reform won a First Amendment victory against the university in federal court in Des Moines in January. Now ISU wants to put that victory on hold while the university’s appeal is considered by the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

U.S. District Judge James Gritzner ruled that ISU violated the First Amendment rights of student leaders of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) campus chapter when the university – based on the group’s political viewpoint – denied permission to use the school’s trademarked logos on NORML’s T-shirts and other materials depicting a cannabis leaf.

ISU appealed that ruling, and a flurry of preliminary motions and responses from the two sides presage a closely fought battle between students’ free speech and the university’s desire to protect its public image.

Not surprisingly, the two sides disagree on the need for a stay and issues central to the case.

The ISU defendants argue in the motion seeking a stay order that “ISU trademarks constitute government speech which they exclusively control and license in accordance with the overall goal of their trademark policies: to promote the image of the University.”

Unless the Court blocks enforcement of Judge Gritzner’s ruling, ISU says it would be “irreparably injured” because it would lose its right to control its own speech by allowing its trademarks to be associated with symbols of illicit drug use.

In response, the students say this case is not about trademarks or “government speech.” Rather, they argue, it is about “viewpoint discrimination” and how the university licenses its trademarks “when student organizations incorporate them into their speech.”

“The district court entered an injunction on summary judgment to prevent ISU from engaging in viewpoint discrimination in its trademark licensing program,” they say, and ISU’s motion for a stay pending appeal “seeks to allow ISU to continue discriminating on the basis of viewpoint until this Court decides the matter.”

What the Eighth Circuit decides on the motion for a stay might hint at how the appeals court judges see the issues. In any case, the final outcome won’t be known for several months after the case is briefed and argued.


Griffin v. Pate: Does the meaning of “infamous crime” come down to what Justice Appel thinks?

By: Ryan Koopmans on March 30th, 2016

This morning, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear argument over what kinds of felons (if any) can vote.  The Iowa Constitution  says that a person who’s been convicted of an “infamous crime” can’t be an “elector” (which means they can’t vote). But which crimes are “infamous”?

Two years ago, a majority of the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that crimes don’t rise to infamy unless they fall into the felony category.  (So no misdemeanors). But the justices split evenly, 3-3, on whether the constitutional prohibition applies to all felonies: Chief Justice Cady and Justices Hecht and Zager concluded that felonies aren’t infamous unless they “might compromise the integrity of our process of democratic governance through the ballot box”; Justice Wiggins argued that any crime that carries a potential prison sentence is an infamous crime (that includes all felonies); and Justices Mansfield and Waterman concluded that all felonies are infamous.  (A more detailed summary of each position is here.)

Justice Appel was recused from the case (presumably because his wife was running for Congress), so we don’t know what he thinks about the issue.  As a result, it’s tempting to see this morning’s argument as an argument to one justice instead of seven.  Everyone else has weighed in, so it’s just a matter of where Justice Appel comes down, right?  

Maybe not.  When the Court took up this issue two years ago, the justices were moving at lightening speed.  They heard oral argument just five days after getting the appeal and only two days after receiving the appellee’s brief.  And they issued their decision (with the three separate opinions described above) just six days after oral argument. 

To put that into perspective, a constitutional case of this magnitude usually takes well over a year from appeal to final decision. And the justices usually give themselves at least three to four months after oral argument to work on their opinions.

So don’t be surprised if Justice Appel isn’t the only one who’s still wrestling with this issue.  Having had more than a couple days to think about it, some of the justices could easily change their mind.  It’s even possible (though still not likely) that we could get a unanimous ruling.  


Justice Ward Reynoldson (1920-2016): A humble judge who changed Iowa courts

By: Rox Laird on March 29th, 2016

The Iowa legal community lost a fine lawyer, judge and dogged advocate for court reform with the death Monday of former Iowa Chief Justice W. Ward Reynoldson.

Although he rose from a small practice in Osceola to the top of Iowa’s court system, Reynoldson was ever humble about his status.

Iowa Court Administrator David Boyd tells a story about when he and his wife, Nancy (who served as the chief’s executive assistant), borrowed Reynoldson’s tickets to attend an Iowa football game. When they asked the couple in the adjacent seats if they knew the Reynoldsons, the response was, “You mean the gentleman farmer and his wife from Osceola?”

Reynoldson would have cherished that description, but there is much more to his life story.

Born in St. Edward, Nebr., in 1920, Reynoldson worked odd jobs to pay his own way through high school and college at Wayne State. After WW II, he entered law school at the University of Iowa on the G.I. Bill and finished in two years by going year-around.

After practicing law in Osceola for more than two decades, which included a stint as county attorney, Reynoldson was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1971 by Gov. Robert Ray. He served as chief justice from 1978 to 1987. Reynoldson wrote 493 opinions for the Court, including an often cited insurance law ruling (C & J Fertilizer v. Allied Mutual, 1975) that, he quipped in a 2004 oral interview is “frequently cited and seldom followed.”

During his years on the Court, Iowa’s court system was pulled up from its 19th century roots, and a fragmented collection of state and local courts were brought into a unified state system. Reynoldson also fought for the state to take over clerks of court, who had been elected and paid by counties. Besides modernizing the courts, those reforms resulted in substantial local property-tax relief.

Another historic change made it easier for the public to see how Iowa’s courts function. Reynoldson appointed a commission to study allowing news media to use cameras and other recording devices in courtrooms, which led to a two-year experiment and a permanent change in 1981.

Ward Reynoldson himself became the face of Iowa’s court system beginning in 1979, when he delivered the first State of the Judiciary address to the Iowa General Assembly. And he was right for the part, with a shock of white hair, a soft drawl, and a courtly manner.

In that first legislative address, the chief justice called on the lawmakers to fully support the Third Branch:

To any extent this branch of government cannot obtain resources to fulfill our function, the public’s confidence in courts is further eroded. The implications are far reaching, for we have yet to come to the end of this experiment in self-government launched with the American Revolution. Inside our boundaries are enormous tensions which must find release in some forum, or perhaps, in some street. Outside we are challenged by ideologies at war with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. All will not turn on the courts, but if the courts fail, the rest is in doubt.

That rich mixture of history and devotion to the law and an independent judiciary, which was seen in subsequent legislative addresses and in his written opinions, was classic Ward Reynoldson: A true gentleman who shaped Iowa law, the courts and left an indelible mark on this state’s history.


Instructing jurors on the use (or non-use) of media in the digital world

By: Rox Laird on March 28th, 2016

The ubiquitous presence of social media present new challenges in keeping jurors from seeing potentially prejudicial information during trials.

That was at issue in a ruling handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court Friday. The Court suggested that Iowa trial judges consider broader admonitions to jurors to avoid not just traditional print news media but online media that ranges from news websites and blogs to Twitter, Facebook and a growing array of new electronic media.

Back in the day when “media” was limited to newspapers and news broadcasts, it was easier for jurors to avoid news related to their trials. Today, social media stream information to people’s electronic devices 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Midtrial publicity is not a new phenomenon,” Justice Daryl Hecht wrote for the unanimous Court. Indeed, in an 1894 case, the Iowa Supreme Court said jurors who read newspaper editorials about a criminal trial during deliberations “meddled and interfered with the order of the court in a very reprehensible and unseemly manner.”

More recently, the Court has recognized that jurors are part of a “new electronic world,” and in Friday’s decision, the Court said it “applies precedent governing print materials to that electronic world.”

Theodore Ray Gathercole II appealed his 2014 conviction for attempted murder and robbery in Linn County on grounds that the trial judge should have polled the jurors to determine whether they were influenced by an inaccurate report about the case posted online while jurors were deliberating. The post inaccurately reported that police found Gathercole’s handprint linking him to the assault.

Besides not wanting to draw attention to the inaccurate information, the trial judge cited several reasons for rejecting Gathercole’s request that the jury be polled: The inaccurate information was in the text of the online article, not in the headline; no juror came forward to report having seen the article; and, based on the trial evidence, there was no dispute that the article was inaccurate. Also, the judge had repeatedly admonished the jurors not to read about the case during the trial.

Although the Court unanimously upheld the trial judge’s decision, the Court did not rule out the need for jury polls in light of printed or electronic information disseminated in the middle of a trial. When necessary, Justice Hecht wrote, Iowa’s trial courts should “resolve doubts about whether information published midtrial requires a poll requested by a party in favor of granting a poll.”

Factors that go into resolving such doubts, the Court said, include weighing the credibility of the source of the disputed information, the conspicuousness of the information in a publication or electronic medium, and the frequency and scope of dissemination.

As a preventative measure, the Court recommended that Iowa trial judges “supplement their jury admonitions and instructions to accommodate technological progress and the danger it can pose to fair and impartial trials.”

The Court also suggested it may be making changes in its guidelines regarding jury polling. The American Bar Association recently amended its model standard to cover information has been disseminated or otherwise made publicly available. While noting the revised language in a footnote, the Court said, “we leave for another day the question whether to adopt the revised ABA standard.”

Stay tuned for more on that, whether it’s your local newspaper, blog, or social media.


Eighth Circuit to decide whether company executives can be jailed under a “responsible corporate officer” theory

By: Rox Laird, Ryan Koopmans on March 14th, 2016

National business groups are keeping a nervous eye on two Iowa egg company executives’ appeal to be heard Thursday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St Paul.

A federal trial judge in Sioux City last April sentenced the top two executives of an egg-production company to three-month prison terms following a massive salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands of consumers.

The central question in the appeal is whether top executives of a corporation can be sentenced to prison for a crime that the company committed but that the executives did not “personally participate” in.  Five national business associations, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, submitted briefs to the federal appeals court saying that sending executives to prison under the so-called “responsible corporate officer” theory would have a “chilling effect” on businesses because  it “dramatically increases the risks of being a business executive in a regulated industry.”

Austin (“Jack”) DeCoster, the owner of Quality Egg that operates several egg-producing facilities in Iowa, and his son Peter, the company’s chief operating officer, pleaded guilty last year to criminal charges related to a salmonella outbreak across the country in 2010. That outbreak caused nearly 2,000 reported illnesses and the recall of 500 million eggs.

In addition to levying fines of $100,000 each and other financial penalties, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett in Sioux City sentenced each DeCoster to three months in federal prison, and both men have now appealed.

Both sides called in big legal guns: The DeCosters retained Washington, D.C. attorney Peter Keisler from Sidley Austin LLP; the U.S. Justice Department’s civil appellate division and consumer protection branch are assisting the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa.

The DeCosters acknowledge the company’s criminal violations for wrongdoing by employees that included falsifying inspection records, mislabeling expiration dates, and bribing a USDA inspector, but they argue that prison sentences are unconstitutional without evidence that they (the two executives) personally participated in the criminal violations or intended to violate the law.

“For more than a century, crimes like these have been punished by fines, occasionally probation, and above all the serious stigma and collateral consequences of criminal conviction,” their lawyers argue in a brief submitted to the appeals court. “Considered against that backdrop,”  it would violate due process and be “cruel and unusual” to send the DeCosters to prison, they argue.

Lawyers for the government contend that the constitution does not prohibit courts from sending an executive to jail, even if he did not “personally participate in the company’s violation.” But they also argue that there’s no reason to address that issue here, because, they say, the DeCosters were directly responsible for wrongdoing by their employees in Iowa: They had knowledge of what was going on at the egg production facilities and what was necessary to prevent the spread of salmonella.

The evidence, the government argues, showed that the DeCosters not only did nothing to prevent the contamination but sought to prevent the government from knowing of the extent of the problem in Iowa: “As the DeCosters themselves emphasize, they were aware for many years that their facilities—and the laying hens themselves—had tested positive for Salmonella, thus putting them on notice of the risk of egg contamination.  Yet defendants, who were indisputably responsible for managing the business, did not take the steps necessary to ensure that Salmonella-contaminated eggs were not shipped in interstate commerce.”

So the case could simply come down to the facts–what did the DeCosters know and when, and what actions did they take, if any.  But if three three-judge panel (Judges Murphy, Beam, and Gruender) decides in the DeCosters’ favor on the factual issue, then they will go on to address the broader legal question: whether district court can send executives to prison under a “buck stops here” theory, or whether punishment for these kinds of strict-liability crimes are limited to fines.


Biological parents in 1965 adoption still secret, says Iowa Supreme Court

By: Ryan Koopmans on March 11th, 2016

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled today that a Linn County court was correct to deny a woman’s request to find out the identity of her biological parents who gave her up for adoption in 1965. 

The case, In the Interest of R.D., was brought by a woman whose identity was also kept confidential.  She was born in Iowa in 1965 to a married couple who consented to her adoption as a newborn.  A few days later, the adoption was finalized and her adoption records were sealed by the court. 

According to the Iowa Supreme Court, the woman grew up in a loving and supportive adoptive family and she achieved academic, professional, and personal success – earning advanced degrees, serving on the faculty of a prestigious university outside Iowa, and being married to a supportive husband for decades. But she has also struggled with depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse, which her psychologist believes are traced to her underlying issues with being adopted.  Her psychologist recommended that she try to identify her parents, based on the opinion that this could help her address her mental health issues.  So the woman wrote to the Linn County District Court, asking that her adoption records be unsealed.  The district court denied her request.

On appeal, the Court’s unanimous decision was a relatively straight-forward question of statutory interpretation.  The statute, Iowa Code section 600.16A, requires adoption records to be kept sealed and confidential, except under limited exceptions.  The woman argued that she fell under an exception for revealing information when “necessary to save the life of or prevent irreparable physical or mental harm to an adopted person.”

But the justices disagreed, reasoning that even under the exception, the court “shall make every reasonable effort to prevent the identity of the biological parents” and R.D. failed to prove that the revelation would be necessary to save her life or to prevent irreparable harm.  The revelation of her parents’ names would “assist the treatment of her alcoholism and related depression and anxiety,” Justice Waterman wrote, but R.D.’s treating medical professionals could  “offer no assurances that her problems will resolve upon her discovery of the identities of her biological parents.”

The Court recognized that this result might not align with “changed attitudes” about adoption, and that these changing attitudes might warrant a “a fresh look at the confidentiality of Iowa’s adoption records,” but it stressed that any change would have to come from the legislature.  “[I]t is not our function to redraft or interpret laws differently from what the legislature intended solely to reflect current values or lifestyles,” the Court explained.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that R.D.’s legal fight was for naught.  If her biological parents learn of her request through the Court’s written opinion (and reports of it), then they can consent to the disclosure of their names.   So if a couple who gave up a newborn daughter for adoption in Linn County in 1965 hears about this decision, and wishes to identify themselves, they could give their consent to the court. 


Iowa Supreme Court splits on when hearsay is admissible in domestic abuse cases

By: Rox Laird on March 8th, 2016

When should “hearsay testimony” of a medical professional identifying an alleged perpetrator be admitted in a domestic-assault prosecution? Only when the testimony is relevant to a medical procedure, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The decision revealed a split among the justices on how judges should deal with domestic abuse cases where victims often refuse to cooperate with the prosecution.

Friday’s ruling in State of Iowa v. Trent D. Smith illustrates the challenge.

When police brought a visibly battered woman to a Waterloo hospital for emergency treatment, she told a doctor and nurse she had been assaulted by her “baby’s daddy.” But she changed her story at trial and testified for the defense in the prosecution of her child’s father, Trent D. Smith.

The jury nonetheless convicted Smith of domestic assault based on the testimony of an emergency room doctor and nurse. But the Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, said the trial court should not have allowed the medical professionals’ testimony, and sent the case back to the trial court.

An exception to the rule against hearsay testimony is allowed when testimony identifying an alleged perpetrator is reasonably related to medical diagnosis or treatment. A statement identifying an assailant is considered more reliable, for example, in child sexual abuse cases where the identity of the perpetrator is reasonably related to medical treatment, which extends to both physiological and psychological injuries. That is not necessarily the case when a victim is assaulted by a stranger.

In earlier rulings, the court has made an exception to the hearsay testimony rule in child sexual abuse prosecutions. But in Friday’s case, the court stopped short of extending that exception to domestic abuse prosecutions. In those cases, the court said, judges must make the determination on a case-by-case basis that the identity of the perpetrator was “reasonably pertinent” to medical treatment or diagnosis.

“The profound and serious problem of domestic abuse in this nation and this state does not escape us in our analysis of this case,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for the majority. “These problems are significant for victims of domestic abuse and the children who have suffered by witnessing the abuse.”

But the court declined to go beyond this case to create a generalized rule.

Writing in dissent, Justice Thomas Waterman, joined by Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager, argued that the court should have created an explicit exemption to the hearsay rule. Citing what he called “sobering statistics” that victims of domestic abuse are repeatedly assaulted over periods of years, Justice Waterman said, “we should adopt a per se rule that the identification of the perpetrator of domestic violence is pertinent to medical diagnosis or treatment and admissible under” the hearsay rule.

The Chief Justice noted that if such an exception is warranted, the court should do it through its rulemaking authority. With three votes already on record in favor of the change, the odds look good for that happening, maybe as soon as the court’s next administrative session in August.


Update: Chief Justice Roberts denies states’ request to stay the EPA’s mercury rule

By: Rox Laird on March 3rd, 2016

Chief Justice John Roberts issued a brief order today denying a petition by 20 states, including Iowa, seeking an order blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing a challenged air pollution regulation. (See Wednesday’s post below for more background.) Chief Justice Roberts’s order does not affect the underlying issue in the case, which is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.


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