Iowa Supreme Court preview: Seven cases set for argument March 6 and 7

By: Rox Laird on March 3rd, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in seven cases March 6 and 7. Following are summaries of five of those cases. Three more cases will be submitted to the Court without oral argument.

Bandstra v. Covenant Reformed Church

Set for argument at 9 a.m. on March 6.

The Bandstras appeal a Marion County District Court’s dismissal on summary judgment of their civil lawsuit against their former church for negligent supervision of a pastor accused of sexual exploitation.

After Valerie and Anne Bandstra reported to the Board of Elders of the Covenant Reformed Church in Pella that both of them had been sexual abused by Pastor Patrick Edouard, the pastor resigned and he was subsequently convicted on four counts of sexual exploitation by a counselor.

The Bandstras sued the church’s 16-member board for negligence in supervising the pastor and for defamation. The defamation claim is based on letters and statements by the elders to the congregation regarding the pastor’s removal that the women contend accused them of adultery for their parts in the sexual encounters with the pastor.

A key issue in this case is whether the church is shielded by the religious-freedom clauses of the U.S. and Iowa constitutions.

The church argues that a judicial inquiry into how they believe the bible viewed the women’s conduct and into the selection and supervision of clergy, which involves matters of religious doctrine, would infringe its First Amendment rights. And, on a related First Amendment issue, the elders argue that church documents sought by the plaintiffs are protected by clergy privilege.

The Bandstras argue in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court that the church can’t “hide behind the First Amendment” to shield itself from negligence, and that the lay members of the Board of Elders do not qualify as “clergy.”

Two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs were filed in the case – one by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and another by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – focusing on religious freedom. Both briefs support the church, arguing the Court should give deference to the church’s right under the First Amendment to make moral judgments about adultery.

[Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode attorneys Michael Thrall and Frances Haas represent the defendant-appellees in this appeal.]

State v. Coffman

Set to be argued at 1:30 p.m. on March 6.

Terry Lee Coffman appeals his OWI conviction from Story County District Court on grounds the trial court should have suppressed evidence obtained in violation of his constitutional rights. The appeal is heard on further review of a ruling by the Iowa Court of Appeals against Coffman.

A Story County deputy sheriff pulled behind Coffman’s vehicle stopped on the shoulder of a deserted county gravel road in the early morning hours. The officer switched on his flashing lights, approached the vehicle to see if the occupants needed assistance and initiated the arrest after smelling alcohol in the car.

The State cites what is called a “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment, which allows a warrantless seizure based on an officer’s reasonable belief that an emergency exists or an individual needs assistance. Coffman argues the deputy had no grounds to make the stop because nothing under the circumstances in his case suggested there was any reason for concern about the welfare of the vehicle’s occupants.

State v. Kenyon Harrison

Set to be argued at 1:30 p.m. on March 6.

Kenyon Harrison invites the Iowa Supreme Court to expand its growing body of decisions shielding juvenile defendants from harsh sentences on grounds that juvenile mental development lags that of adults.

Harrison appeals his conviction in Polk County District Court for first-degree murder and sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. The felony-murder conviction stems from Harrison’s participation in a robbery in which the victim was murdered.

Harrison argues that the felony murder rule – which makes murder in the commission of a forcible felony murder in the first degree – is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles.

An amicus curiae brief was filed with the Court in support of Harrison by the Juvenile Law Center, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior.

Nolan Deeds v. City of Marion

Set to be argued at 9 a.m. on March 7.

Nolan Deeds appeals a decision of the Linn County District Court summary-judgment dismissal of his disability discrimination claim against the City of Marion, which withdrew a job offer for a firefighter position on the basis of a consulting doctor’s conclusion that he was not medically qualified for the job.

Deeds argues the doctor wrongly based her conclusion on an earlier diagnosis that he had had symptoms of muscular sclerosis. This appeal is heard on further review of a ruling by the Iowa Court of Appeals against Deeds.

A companion case, Nolan Deeds v. the City of Cedar Rapids, which involves similar issues, will be submitted to the Court the same day but without oral argument.

Powers v. State of Iowa

Set to be argued March 7 at 1:30 p.m.

In this appeal from Black Hawk County District Court David Powers challenges a decision by the trial judge to quash Powers’ subpoena for evidence in police records he believes would aid his post-conviction appeal.

In his appeal of his conviction of sexual abuse of his 7-year-old grand-daughter, Powers sought police records he believes would undermine her credibility by showing she may have made false rape accusations against other persons. After reviewing the police records, the trial judge denied Powers access to the evidence because he did not believe the grand-daughter made a false accusation.

An amicus curiae brief submitted to the Court in this case by the Innocence Network, the Innocence Project of Iowa and the Midwest Innocence Project in support of Powers, argues that equal access to exculpatory evidence reduces the imbalance of power between the state and criminal defendants. The brief argues that at least Powers’ attorney should have access to the reports to independently weigh their relevance, even if the trial court ultimately rules them inadmissible.

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