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.”


Iowa Supreme Court opens door to ‘actual innocence’ claims following guilty pleas

By: Rox Laird on March 27th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a person who pleaded guilty to a crime has a right under the Iowa Constitution to later claim that he or she is, in fact, innocent based on newly discovered evidence.

The Court, in a 4-3 ruling handed down March 23, overturned prior Iowa decisions that limited actual-innocence claims following a guilty plea to only those that attack the constitutional or procedural validity of the guilty plea. With this ruling, a defendant may assert actual innocence based on evidence unrelated to the validity of the plea itself.

The decision in Schmidt v. State of Iowa written by Justice David Wiggins was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel.

The chief justice filed a separate opinion concurring with the judgment. “The process of justice must always be fair,” Cady wrote. “This case stands tall as the embodiment of this fundamental principle of law. It is a substantial step forward in our constitutional march to become better. Innocent people should always have a forum to prove their innocence. I fully concur in the opinion of the Court.”

Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager dissented. “Today’s decision will have bad consequences,” Waterman wrote in his dissenting opinion, “including fewer plea bargains, renewed turmoil for victims and their families years after the crime, and a flood of [post-conviction relief] applications.”

Jacob Schmidt pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, in part on the basis of the testimony of the victim, his younger half-brother. Seven years later, the half-brother recanted his testimony, saying Schmidt had not attempted to sexually abuse him. The Woodbury County District Court dismissed Schmidt’s post-conviction appeal, citing Iowa Supreme Court precedent.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Schmidt’s appeal has been in the making for more than a year. It was first argued in February 2017 but held over to be reargued this term. Meanwhile, the Court asked the parties to submit additional briefs focusing on several questions, including what standard should apply if a guilty plea does not always bar an actual-innocence claim.

The Iowa Supreme Court has historically stressed the finality of a criminal conviction based on a guilty plea that is made knowingly and intelligently and with assistance of counsel. In a 1990 decision, the Court said “notions of newly discovered evidence simply have no bearing on a knowing and voluntary admission of guilt.”

But the Court pointed to recent evidence that innocent people do, in fact, plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, citing a National Registry of Exonerations report that, in 2016, 74 convicted criminals who had pleaded guilty were subsequently exonerated.

“Pleading guilty does not automatically mean the defendant is actually guilty,” Wiggins wrote. “Sometimes, an innocent defendant is choosing the lesser of two evils: pleading guilty despite his or her actual innocence because the odds are stacked up against him or her, or going to trial with the risk of losing and the prospect of receiving a harsher sentence.”

With that in mind, the Court said it was time to open the door to allow those who plead guilty to appeal their convictions based on new evidence. “It is time that we refuse to perpetuate a system of justice that allows actually innocent people to remain in prison,” Wiggins wrote, “even those who profess guilt despite their actual innocence.”

To do that, the Court looked to the Iowa Constitution, which in Article 1 Section 9 says “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and in Article 1 Section 17 prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

“Holding a person who has committed no crime in prison strikes the very essence of the constitutional guarantee of substantive due process,” Wiggins wrote, and punishing a person who is actually innocent is cruel and unusual.

In order to succeed on a claim of actual innocence, the Court said the applicant must show by “clear and convincing evidence that, despite the evidence of guilt supporting the conviction, no reasonable fact finder could convict the applicant of the crimes for which the sentencing court found the applicant guilty in light of all the evidence, including the newly discovered evidence.”

In Schmidt’s case, the Iowa Supreme Court did not take a position on his claim of innocence based on the recanted witness testimony. Rather, it sent the case back to the District Court for further proceedings, as “both parties are entitled to their day in court to litigate their positions under the new standard we have adopted today.”

“Only after the parties develop a record in a summary proceeding can the court decide if a genuine issue of material fact exists,” Wiggins wrote. “If it does, then a trial may be necessary to resolve Schmidt’s claim.”


“Supermajority” Bill Could Change the Outcome of State Constitutional Questions before the Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on March 20th, 2018

A bill passed by the Iowa Senate (S.F. 2282) would block the Iowa Supreme Court from declaring a State statute unconstitutional if the decision is not supported by at least five justices of the seven-member Court.

Although the bill failed to make it out of committee in the House by Friday’s deadline, legislative leaders could still bring it to the floor for consideration this session.

A proponent of the bill, Sen. Julian Garrett, an Indianola Republican, says it is wrong that under the current majority requirement a state law approved by majorities of the House and Senate and signed by the governor can be overturned by four justices of the Iowa Supreme Court.

“This is a bill that tries to make a small step to address that issue,” he said during the Senate debate. “You have to persuade five judges instead of four that a law is unconstitutional.”

The “supermajority” requirement, however, raises constitutional questions regarding the boundary between the legislative and judicial branches of government, according to two constitutional scholars.

“It seems like a constitutional non-starter to me,” University of Iowa law professor Todd Pettys told On Brief last week. The U.S. Supreme Court would not honor a bill from Congress that required a supermajority, Pettys said, and the same separation-of-powers principles apply to state and federal courts.

Mark Kende, director of the Constitutional Law Center and at Drake Law School and who holds the James Madison Chair in Constitutional Law, agreed:  “I believe this is a dangerous step to undermine the role of the judiciary interpreting the Constitution,” Kende said.

Article III Section 1 of the Iowa Constitution addresses the separation of powers:

“The powers of the government of Iowa shall be divided into three separate departments — the legislative, the executive, and the judicial: and no person charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any function appertaining to either of the others, except in cases hereinafter expressly directed or permitted.”

But Garrett said in an interview with On Brief he does not see the proposed legislation violating separation of powers.

“Our Iowa Constitution specifically says the Supreme Court can correct errors of law ‘under such restrictions as the General Assembly may, by law, prescribe’,” Garrett said, referring to Article V Section 4. Garrett said that provision enables the Legislature to require the votes of five justices of the Supreme Court to overturn a state statute. “The Constitution says we can pass the rules and regulations of the Court, so I don’t see why we can’t.”

Article V Section 10 authorizes the Legislature to increase or reduce the overall number of justices, suggesting that lawmakers also may dictate the number of justices required to strike down state statutes. But Pettys argues there is a qualitative difference between legislators establishing the size and jurisdiction of an appellate court and dictating the court’s internal rules for how it makes decisions.

Pettys likened the latter to legislators going into the chambers with the justices – where no one else is allowed – and saying, “We want you to have one more justice” in the majority or you can’t speak on this subject. “That’s just a pure naked power grab by the Legislature. It totally drains the judicial branch of government of its most important job, which is to decide what is structurally permissible” in writing state laws.

Constitutional amendment or legislation?

Two states – Nebraska and North Dakota – currently require supermajorities to strike down state statutes, but both were done by constitutional amendment during the progressive era a century ago, not by statute.

 “We could do it either way,” Garrett said, but he pointed out that amending the Iowa Constitutional is a lengthy process.

“The courts are not bashful about changing the Constitution, rather than allowing the people to do it through a constitutional amendment,” he said.

“I’m just trying to put a little bit of a damper on their propensity to change the meaning of the Constitution. You’ve heard this ‘living, breathing Constitution concept.’ It gives the Court the power to do whatever it wants. It’s a very clever theory that enables them to make the changes they want in the Constitution.”

What if a supermajority were already required in Iowa?

Though it does not happen often, the Iowa Supreme Court has held state statutes unconstitutional with a one-vote majority. What would have been the outcome of some recent decisions had a supermajority requirement been on the books?

For one, riverboat casinos might be taxed at a significantly lower rate than racetracks. The Iowa Supreme Court in Racing Association v. Fitzgerald (2002) struck down the statutory tax scheme that set different rates for different casinos. The Court, by a vote of 4-3, ruled unequal tax treatments violated the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions. (On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed regarding the federal Constitution but the Iowa Supreme Court subsequently stuck by its position based on its reading of the Iowa Constitution, this time with five justices in the majority.)

Juvenile offenders could face longer prison sentences in Iowa. Perhaps the most persistent 4-3 split on the current Iowa Supreme Court involves juvenile criminal sentences the Iowa Court has handed down in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court decisions based on evidence that juvenile mental and emotional development is not the same as adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in 2014 State v. Lyle (2014) that, in the case of juveniles, one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum prison sentences prescribed by the Legislature violate the Iowa Constitution’s equivalent of the Eighth Amendment. The Court in Lyle said a juvenile could be sentenced to a minimum prison term before being eligible for parole, but there must be a finding by a trial court that weighs a number of mitigating factors, including the offender’s age, family and home life, the nature of the crime and his or her potential for reform.

Additionally, undocumented immigrants living in Iowa could be prosecuted by the State for using forged documents to obtain employment. The Court, in State v. Martinez (2017), ruled 4-3 that such prosecutions by the State violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution because the State statute is pre-empted by federal immigration law.

“Court packing” in Iowa?

The size of the Iowa Supreme Court has changed a number of times over the past 180 years, beginning with three judges in the Territorial era and growing to nine before it was shrunk to seven by a 1998 statute at the same time the Iowa Court of Appeals was enlarged.

Thus, State legislators could increase the size of the Supreme Court in an effort to dilute the votes of justices whose opinions they dislike. That is what President Franklin Roosevelt sought to do in the famous, though short-lived, “court packing” scheme in 1937, which was roundly criticized by both parties.

“And to be clear,” Drake’s Kende noted in commenting to On Brief about the Iowa supermajority proposal, “I would have opposed FDR’s court packing scheme as well so my position is not partisan.”


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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.



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