U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal from an Iowa surrogate mother seeking custody of the child

By: Rox Laird on September 20th, 2018

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether to accept the appeal of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling on the enforceability of a contract signed by a woman who acted as a surrogate mother for an Iowa couple unable to conceive a child of their own.

The surrogate mother, identified as T.B. in court documents, was impregnated with embryos fertilized with the intended biological father’s sperm and ova from an anonymous donor. She changed her mind after the child was born, and sued the Cedar Rapids couple in Linn County District Court, arguing that the surrogacy contract was unconstitutional and that her parental rights should not have been terminated.


The 2017-18 term marked the end of an era for the Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on September 19th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018-19 term that began Sept. 4 marks the first change in court personnel in nearly a decade, with the retirement of Justice Bruce Zager and the appointment of former District Judge Susan Christensen to take his place.

The Court’s 2017-18 term was the final chapter of the era that began after the removal by voters of three justices, the appointment of Zager, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman to replace them, and the elevation of Mark Cady to Chief Justice.

In the term that ended in June, the Court decided 102 cases, although three additional cases were resubmitted for consideration this term, and one case was dismissed.

The largest percentage of cases (44 percent) the Court heard were further review of Court of Appeals decisions, and 36 percent were direct appeals from the District Courts.

The Supreme Court reversed the trial courts in 45 percent of the cases heard on appeal, and affirmed in 37 percent, with 15 percent yielding in mixed results (i.e., partially affirmed, partially reversed).

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in 64 percent of the cases and affirmed the lower court in 25 percent of the cases. That reversal rate is not surprising, since the Supreme Court typically accepts appeals of only a small fraction of the 1,200 cases decided by the Court of Appeals each year, and the justices accept appeals on further review only in those cases where they believe reconsideration is warranted.


Iowa Supreme Court to hear oral argument at Johnston High School Monday night, and at the Judicial Branch Building Tuesday

By: Rox Laird on September 14th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments at 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Johnston High School in a drunk-driving appeal that raises constitutional issues. The justices will be back at the Judicial Branch Building Tuesday to hear arguments in three cases on Sept. 18. A fourth case will be submitted to the Court that day without oral argument. Following are brief summaries of those cases (go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page for links to briefs).


Eight oral arguments on tap for the Iowa Supreme Court this week

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in eight cases Wednesday and Thursday, and six cases will be submitted to the Court without oral argument. Following are brief summaries of the cases.


Question to be argued before the Iowa Supreme Court: Games of skill or chance?

By: Rox Laird on September 6th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday in Iowa City in a case that could determine whether gaming devices that resemble slot machines could be placed in Iowa businesses other than bars.

The Court will hear oral arguments at 10:30 a.m. Friday in Banilla Games Inc. v. Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals at the Levitt Auditorium at the University of Iowa College of Law. The case presents a question of interpreting the gaming statute on which the Court has not ruled before.

Banilla Games, a North Carolina company, manufactures and sells electronic games that resemble touch-screen slot machines. Players purchase credits, with one cent equaling one credit, and are challenged to match or complete sets of images on the screen. Winners receive a ticket or voucher worth up to $50 that can be redeemed for merchandise within the commercial establishment where the game is played.

At issue is whether Banilla’s Superior Skill game machines must be registered with the State under the gambling regulations in Iowa Code Chapter 99B. Gaming devices that require registration are limited by the statute to businesses holding liquor licenses, whereas non-registered devices can be placed in other locations, such as convenience stores.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals ruled that Banilla’s Superior Skill machines are subject to the registration requirement, and the agency’s ruling was upheld in a July 2017 decision by Polk County District Judge Mary Pat Gunderson.

Banilla argues in its appeal of the District Court decision that its machines are games of skill, not chance, and thus do not have to be registered.


Eighth Circuit rules ‘In God We Trust’ on U.S. currency is constitutional

By: Rox Laird on September 4th, 2018

The motto “In God We Trust” has been printed on U.S. currency since the Civil War, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit confronted the question of whether it violates the Constitution for the first time in an Aug. 28 ruling.

The answer? The motto does not violate the Constitution.

A three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based court, which has jurisdiction over Iowa and six other Midwest states, rejected arguments raised in an appeal of a Minnesota District Court decision by 27 atheists or children of atheists and two atheist organizations.

The plaintiffs argued that government-issued bills and coins bearing a “purely religious” message amount to an explicit endorsement of Christianity and monotheism. They contend that violates the Establishment Clause, the Free Speech Clause and the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment, equal protection under the Fifth Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Each of these claims was rejected by the panel – consisting of Judges Raymond Gruender of St. Louis, Arlen Beam of Lincoln, and Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids. Kelly, however, filed a separate opinion concurring with the judgment, but she disagreed with the majority’s discussion of the Establishment Clause question.

Writing for the majority, Gruender pointed out that the other federal circuit appeals courts that have considered this question have held that the motto does not violate the Establishment Clause, and the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said as much (although in dicta, or passing references in related cases).


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch shares his views on preserving the rule of law at Des Moines conference

By: Rox Laird on August 20th, 2018

Neil Gorsuch, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, made a case for defending the rule of law in a conversation a Q-and-A-format conversation with Lavenski Smith, Chief Judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, at the Eighth Circuit conference in Des Moines Friday.

Justice Gorsuch said he worries about preserving the roles of independent judges and juries.

“The rule of law here is really one of the wonders of the world,” he said, and it “separates this country from almost any other on Earth. Go to some other countries and see the judges and the pressures they face, and the challenges the face – their safety, their security, their ability to make independent decisions.”

“I think the right to have an independent judge tell you what the law is, no matter who you are, is one of the great liberties and the genius of the Constitution.”

Gorsuch said the rule of law in this country means that a defendant who is unpopular, a member of a minority group or a person holding a minority religious belief “can go before a judge who is not going to defer, delegate, or lower the law to someone else, who is going to enforce your rights as equally as anyone else’s. That’s a powerful guarantee. And I hope we never lose that.”


District Judge Susan Christensen named to the Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on August 2nd, 2018

Susan Christensen told her husband some years ago that she wanted to be a judge, and she reached that goal when she became a District Associate Judge in 2007 and a District Judge in 2015. But her climb up the judiciary ladder did not end there: On Wednesday, Christensen was appointed as an Associate Justice on Iowa’s highest court.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Christensen’s appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. She replaces Justice Bruce Zager, who will retire in September.

Christensen, 56, a Harlan native who worked in private practice and as an assistant county attorney before being appointed to the District Court in 2015, was among 21 applicants for the Court and three finalists forwarded to the governor by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. (For more information on the applicants, the Iowa Judicial Branch has posted all 21 applications and videos of their interviews with the commission.)


Iowa native tapped for vacancy on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals

By: Rox Laird on July 25th, 2018

A Sioux City native has been nominated to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to replace Judge Roger Wollman, who has announced he will take senior status.

Jonathan Kobes, now serving as general counsel to U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, was appointed by President Donald Trump to replace Wollman, who has announced he will assume senior status as soon as his replacement is confirmed.

Judge Wollman, who was appointed to the Eighth Circuit in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, will turn 84 this year.

Kobes, 43, graduated from Dordt College in Sioux Center in 1996, Harvard Law School in 2000 and clerked for Judge Wollman after graduation.

Kobes has had a varied legal career: He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and the Sioux Falls office of Murphy, Goldammer and Prendergast where he was a litigation associate.


Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issues a split decision on the legality of Des Moines’ utility fee

By: Rox Laird on July 18th, 2018

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis handed down a split decision Tuesday on a City of Des Moines utility fee, holding that the fee is not pre-empted by federal law while remanding to the trial court the question of its legality under Iowa law.

Des Moines charges a fee to telecommunications carriers for the use of the city’s rights of way for their cables and wires. After the city increased the fee, it was sued in federal court by Century Link, Windstream Communications and McLeod USA Telecommunications Services.

The carriers argued the fee structure is pre-empted by federal law and that the city exceeded its powers under state law. U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle in Des Moines ruled against the carriers on both counts in December 2016 following a bench trial.


On Brief

About Us

On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.



Links