As the Associated Press reported yesterday, the Iowa Supreme Court is again going to take up the question whether felons can vote. Or, more specifically, whether all felonies (or just certain kinds) are “infamous crimes” under the Iowa Constitution. The Court addressed the question two years ago, but Justice Appel recused himself in that case and the other six justices split 3-3 on the issue. (Background here.)
So the justices are going to try again. And this time with more help. To start, Justice Appel will likely be on the bench, which means that the justices will get the benefit of his insight and the tie-breaking vote. But others are volunteering to help, too. Seven groups–the Iowa County Attorneys Association, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Polk County Auditor, the Iowa League of Women Voters, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (known as CURE), Iowa Veterans, and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund–have weighed in by filing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.
Amicus briefs aren’t unusual, but they’ve become more prevalent in Iowa Supreme Court cases over the past five years. And the justices don’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem to be welcoming them.
Last week, Chief Justice Cady entered an order setting oral argument in this case (Griffin v. Pate) for March 30 (which, by itself, is significant, since it will allow the justices to decide the case before the end of the 2015 term and thus before the 2016 elections). In a rare (maybe unprecedented) move, the Chief also increased the oral argument time (from 15 minutes per side to 30 minutes per side) and alerted the parties that “the court will permit a counsel for amici curiae to argue within the time frame allotted for each side with which they align.” So Secretary of State Paul Pate can, if he chooses, allow the Iowa County Attorneys Association and the Iowa State Association of Counties to use some of his 30-minute argument time. And the plaintiff (who is being represented by the ACLU) can give some of her time to the Polk County Auditor, the League of Women Voters, CURE, Iowa Veterans, and the NAACP.
It’s unlikely that all of those groups will speak. And it may be that none of them do; it’s up to the parties. But some of the briefs offer unique perspectives that may be valuable to the Court. The Iowa Association of Counties, for instance, represents the various county auditors who have to administer elections. They’re not concerned as much with whether felons can vote as they are with making sure that whatever the rule is, it’s easy to apply. Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald has nevertheless taken the opposite position (he thinks the infamous-crimes provision should be interpreted narrowly, and on a crime-by-crime basis, despite the administrative problems that would create), and thus his input might also be valuable.
This is something of a test case, it seems. If it goes well, we might see more amicus participation at oral argument. And since the Iowa Supreme Court’s rulings apply in all future cases (not just to the parties before the court), that’s probably a good thing.