The Iowa Supreme Court’s views have evolved on equal protection, according to Drake Law Review article co-authored by Justice Edward Mansfield

By: Rox Laird on April 13th, 2018

The Iowa Constitution states in Article I, Section 6 that “All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the general assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

Iowa judges today read this clause as the equivalent of the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment to the federal Constitution. But that may not be what the authors of the Iowa Constitution had in mind when it was written, according to an article published in the Drake Law Review by Iowa Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield and Des Moines attorney Conner Wasson (Exploring the Original Meaning of Article I, Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution).

In fact, as Mansfield and Wasson point out, Article I, Section 6 contains two provisions, one saying laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation, and the other saying the Legislature may not grant privileges or immunities to a citizen or class of citizens.

The two provisions were introduced at different times, and the authors suggest they may have meant different things: The “uniform operation” clause first appeared in the 1844 Constitution (which was not ratified) and the “privileges and immunities” clause was added in the 1857 Constitution that governs today.

“We conclude, based on text and legislative history, that the two clauses in Article I, Section 6 may have been intended to serve different roles,” the authors write. “The uniformity clause was aimed at geographical discrimination, the privileges and immunities clause at special legislative franchises or monopolies.”

As evidence that Iowa Supreme Court in the 19th century did not see Article I, Section 6 as an equal-rights guarantee, the authors cite two landmark Iowa decisions on civil rights: Clark v. Board of Directors (1868), which struck down segregated public schools, and Coger v. Northwest Union Packet Company (1873), which held as unreasonable a whites-only steamboat dining room. Both decisions cited different provisions of the Iowa Constitution.

The Court’s thinking, according to Mansfield and Wasson, began to evolve late in the 19th century when parties began citing Article I, Section 6, along with the federal Equal Protection Clause in appeals to the Iowa Supreme Court. And, in 1906, the Court held that the same principles applied to both clauses. That view continues today.

“Since 1980,” Mansfield and Wasson write, “the Iowa Supreme Court has generally used federal Equal Protection Clause jurisprudence as its starting point when considering claims under Article I, Section 6. Often, it has also used that jurisprudence as its endpoint — reaching the same result as the federal courts.”

Taxing one stepchild but not another does not violate equal protection, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on November 27th, 2017

Iowa tax law does not run afoul of the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution in treating certain stepchildren differently than others for inheritance-tax purposes, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in Tyler & Alcorn vs. Iowa Department of Revenue.

The distinction is whether a stepchild’s parent was married to the stepparent whose estate is distributed after death.

The stepfather of Paula Tyler and Mark Alcorn left his $1.8 million estate to the two children he had raised as his own, and to their mother to whom he had been married for 35 years before divorcing. Because the divorce occurred before their stepfather’s death, Paula and Mark were assessed $203,000 in inheritance tax.

Had their mother and stepfather been married at the time of his death, there would have been no tax due, and the appellants argued that is an equal-protection violation.

The Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous decision by Justice Edward Mansfield handed down on Nov. 17.

For the purposes of this appeal, the Court assumed that Paula and Mark are “similarly situated” with stepchildren whose parent and stepparent were not divorced. The question, then, is whether treating the two classes of stepchildren differently on inheritance taxes is “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.”

On that question, the Court agreed with the State’s position that it has a legitimate interest in promoting family relationships and close connections among relatives.

The preferential tax treatment is “intended to promote and preserve the family relationship while balancing that interest against the goal of raising revenue,” Mansfield wrote for the Court. “Favorable tax treatment of intrafamily transfers, at the most basic level, allows more assets to remain within the family. This strengthens the family and helps the family maintain financial security. Such tax laws also incentivize persons to keep their wealth within that group rather than transferring it outside.”

Mansfield noted that none of the parties to this case argued that inheritance tax laws should treat all beneficiaries the same, or that they cannot favor family over non-family beneficiaries. Indeed, the stepchildren’s mother also was assessed the inheritance tax on her share of her ex-husband’s estate.

The Court acknowledged it is difficult to draw precise lines to achieve fairness in taxation, but uniformity can also lead to unfairness. “For example,” Mansfield wrote, “if the child of a decedent’s ex-spouse is constitutionally entitled to preferential inheritance tax treatment, why not a decedent’s nephew, niece, or foster child?”

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