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.

Iowa Supreme Court preview: Justices will hear arguments this week on abortion, immunity for public officials, and municipal zoning

By: Rox Laird on February 12th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in seven cases this week. Following are summaries of three cases set for argument Tuesday and Wednesday. [See our earlier preview of in Honomichl v. Valley View Swine, which will be argued Monday during an evening session of the Court.]

City of Des Moines v. Ogden

Set for argument 9 a.m. Feb. 13.

Mark Ogden appeals from a Polk County District Court ruling, upheld by the Iowa Court of Appeals, that enjoined him from operating a mobile-home park in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance. (The Supreme Court hears this case on further review from the Court of Appeals.)

The District Court agreed with the city that the park no longer is entitled to its legal, nonconforming status because zoning and health-and-safety violations have intensified since it was first granted more than 60 years ago. Additions to trailers within the park, such as decks and out-buildings, pose a danger to health and safety of residents by increasing fire risk and blocking access by firefighting apparatus.

Ogden argues that his Oak Hill Mobile Home Park on the south side of Des Moines is substantially configured as it has been since 1939, and there is no evidence in the record of intensification or safety issues. Ogden contends the city’s underlying goal is gentrification by removing what some might see as an eyesore. Eight park residents echo that argument in an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief filed by lawyers for Iowa Legal Aid, saying the city’s efforts to shutter the mobile-home park will work a hardship on low-income, largely Hispanic residents.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Kimberly K. Reynolds ex rel. State of Iowa

Set for argument 9 a.m. Feb. 14.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland appeals a decision from Polk County District Court denying an injunction against enforcement of a statute enacted in April 2017 that requires that a woman seeking an abortion be given the opportunity to see an ultrasound and hear the fetal heartbeat at least 72 hours before the procedure.

Planned Parenthood argues that many Iowa women would have to travel great distances, some making two trips, due to the limited number of Iowa abortion providers, which it says especially endangers abused women and victims of sexual assault. The appellant argues the statute fails the “undue burden” test set by the U.S. Supreme Court and violates the equal-protection clause of the Iowa Constitution by placing “burdensome restrictions” on women seeking abortions not imposed on other medical procedures.

The State argues that the act does not violate the Iowa Constitution nor pose an undue burden on women, and there is no evidence on the record that women would be prevented from obtaining abortions under the statute. The State argues that abortion is not a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution – that is, a right that is explicitly or implicitly enumerated in the constitution or “deeply rooted in our history and tradition.”

Six outside groups filed amicus curiae briefs in this case.

Briefs in support of Planned Parenthood were filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; a group of biomedical ethicists; the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence; four constitutional law scholars and teachers; and, the National Abortion Federation.

A brief in support of the State was filed by the Iowa Catholic Conference. [Disclosure: The Catholic Conference brief was written in part by Nyemaster Goode attorney Frank Harty.]

Gregory Baldwin v. City of Estherville

Set for argument 1:30 p.m. Feb. 14.

The Iowa Supreme Court is asked in this case to answer a certified question from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa on whether government officials have qualified immunity from liability in suits brought under the Iowa Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Gregory Baldwin sued the City of Estherville, also naming two city police officers personally, for illegal search and seizure under the Iowa and U.S. constitutions. The case was removed from Emmet County District Court to federal court, which ruled the officers had qualified immunity for violating Baldwin’s rights under the U.S. Constitution.

But the federal court stayed a decision on immunity under the Iowa Constitution pending an answer from the Iowa Supreme Court to this question: “Can a defendant raise a defense of qualified immunity to an individual’s claim for damages for violation of Article I, Section 1 and Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution?”

The city urges the Iowa Supreme Court to adopt a qualified-immunity defense for violations in such cases, which will protect the government’s ability to “provide traditional services while ensuring that talented candidates are not deterred from service by the threat of litigation.”

Baldwin argues that a qualified-immunity defense is incompatible with a violation of the Iowa Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which is “the ultimate and principal expression of public policy in Iowa,” whereas qualified immunity is “wholly underpinned by lesser public policy considerations.”

Three amicus curiae briefs were filed in this case. Two were submitted in support of the city and the officers, one by Attorney General Tom Miller on behalf of the State and the other by the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool, a self-insurance program for Iowa public bodies. A brief supporting Baldwin was filed by the Iowa Association for Justice, an organization of Iowa trial lawyers.

Iowa Supreme Court preview: Is Iowa’s law protecting hog confinements from lawsuits unconstitutional?

By: Rox Laird on February 9th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 12 in a case that could dramatically affect all legal disputes between rural residents and livestock confinement operators. The session is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines to accommodate members of the public.

The justices will hear oral arguments in one case – Honomichl v. Valley View Swine – on whether an Iowa statute that gives livestock operations limited immunity from nuisance liability violates the inalienable rights clause in Article I, Section 1 of the Iowa Constitution.

A ruling striking down the statute could open the door to more lawsuits against confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across the state. The pork industry already faces numerous suits, according to the defendant-appellants, who say there have been as many as 15 individual nuisance suits pending at one time in nine Iowa counties involving hundreds of plaintiffs.

The lawsuit that led to this appeal was initially filed by 70 individual plaintiffs, subsequently divided into three groups by the trial court with designated “bellwether” plaintiffs representing each group. The plaintiff-appellees testified in depositions that odors from the nearly 10,000 hogs confined nearby prevent outdoor activities, such as cookouts or hanging out laundry, and cause headaches and nose and throat irritations.

The parties’ arguments are bolstered by two amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs filed with the Iowa Supreme Court, one in support of the defendant-appellants by the Iowa Pork Producers Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, and one in support of the plaintiff-appellees by the Iowa Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group.

At the heart of the case is Iowa Code section 657.11, which says an animal-feeding operation “shall not be found to be a public or private nuisance” so long as it complies with State and federal laws and regulations. An exception is made for a confinement facility that both “unreasonably and for substantial periods of time” interferes with a person’s “comfortable use and enjoyment of the person’s life or property” and that fails to use “existing prudent generally accepted management practices reasonable for the operation.”

The defendants, who built hog-confinement buildings on two sites in Wapello County in 2013, appeal a ruling on pre-trial motions by Wapello County District Judge Annette Scieszinski that the immunity statute is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs, who have lived in their homes since before the hog-confinement buildings were erected.

The Wapello County trial court’s ruling is based on a 2004 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, Gacke v. Pork Xtra, which found the immunity statute unconstitutional under the takings clause of the Iowa Constitution because it amounted to taking private property for the benefit of confinement operators without just compensation.

The Court in Gacke limited the holding as it applied to the plaintiffs in that suit based on their proximity to the hog facility, how long they had lived there, how much they had invested in their property and whether they received any direct benefits from the confinement facility.

The hog-confinement operators argue that the Wapello County District Court wrongly ruled that the statute likewise violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs in this case because the trial court did not base its ruling on a factual analysis specific to the Wapello County plaintiffs.

“The ruling purports to follow in the footsteps of the Gacke Court in holding the statute unconstitutional ‘as applied’ to plaintiffs,” they argue in a brief submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court. “However, unlike Gacke, the ruling is devoid of facts and analysis necessary to establish an ‘as applied’ challenge sufficient to overcome the presumption of validity afforded to section 657.11 and all statutes enacted by the General Assembly.”

The confinement operators urge the Court to affirm the constitutionality of section 657.11, which they argue strikes a proper balance between the rights of neighbors and farmers and is an appropriate use of the Legislature’s powers to protect a vital Iowa industry from being assaulted by lawsuits.

The neighboring residents, in a brief submitted to the Court, say the trial court reached the correct conclusion and they urge the Iowa Supreme Court to uphold it. But they urge the Court to go further and declare the statute unconstitutional on its face “because it unduly oppresses an individual’s right to use and enjoy property by denying her right to recover for an injury to the same.”

The Pork Producers and Iowa Farm Bureau, in their amicus brief, urge the Court to clarify Gacke to take into account more stringent regulations of animal-confinement operations that have been enacted since that decision was handed down 14 years ago.

“Because of the drastic changes in statutory and regulatory requirements for livestock facilities since the Gacke case,” the brief argues, “it is no longer workable or effective to compare plaintiffs in today’s nuisance cases to the Gackes in determining constitutionality of the statute because the Gacke facts would be impossible to repeat under the current statutory and regulatory requirements.”

Iowa Supreme Court set to hear arguments in four cases next week

By: Rox Laird on December 8th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in four cases on Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 12 and 13, in appeals that ask the Court to settle a dispute over a baby born of a surrogate mother, an asbestos liability suit brought by the estate of a lung-cancer victim, and a question of whether the State can withdraw tax credits awarded to a film project four years after approving them. Three other cases will be submitted to the court without oral argument.

Following are summaries of three of the cases set for argument:

P.M. and C.M. v. T.B. and D.B.

Scheduled for oral argument 1:30 p.m. Dec. 13.

The appellees in this case, identified as P.M. and C.M., are a couple who entered into a contract with the appellant, T.B., to carry to term anonymously donated ova fertilized by P.M.’s sperm. T.B. gave birth to twins 13 weeks prematurely, and one twin died eight days later. T.B did not inform the Ms of the births and, after bonding with the surviving infant for two months, she changed her mind about giving up the child.

The Ms sued to enforce the “gestational surrogacy” contract and to terminate T.B.’s parental rights, arguing that P.M. is the biological father as confirmed by genetic test results that ruled out T.B. as a biological parent. The Linn County District Court ruled in their favor.

In her appeal, T.B. argues that she is legally the mother of the child – as a matter of biological and scientific fact – that the contract with the Ms is unenforceable absent an Iowa statute recognizing such gestational surrogacy contracts. She further argues that enforcing the contract would violate her constitutional rights of due process and equal protection and those of the child.

Shari Kinseth and Ricky Kinseth v. Weil-McLain

Scheduled for argument 9 a.m. Dec. 12.

Larry Kinseth died in 2009 of lung cancer related to asbestos exposure from a long career of installing insulated boilers. A Wright County jury awarded the estate a $6.5 verdict, including $2.5 million in punitive damages. In this appeal, Indiana-based boiler manufacturer Weil-McLain asks the Court to reverse the District Court’s judgment, bar punitive damages and remand for a new trial.

The defendant-appellants argue the trial court erred by not submitting a question to the jury regarding fault shared by three other companies, that punitive damages are precluded by Iowa law in this case and that the jury was tainted by inadmissible evidence, including an earlier citation by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration against Weil-McLain, and the plaintiff’s asbestos exposure that occurred after the statute of limitations expired.

The Kinseth estate argues that the lower court properly ruled that fault could not be shared with third parties absent evidence that the decedent could be compensated for exposure harm by other parties. It argues that all challenged evidence was admissible, and that punitive damages are supported in this case by the trial record and by Iowa law because McLain’s practices were not consistent with other manufacturers.

Iowa Department of Economic Development v. Ghost Player LLC and CH Investors LLC

Scheduled to be submitted to the Court without oral argument at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 12. 

Ghost Players sued the State of Iowa after the Iowa Department of Economic Development revoked tax credits awarded four years earlier for a movie, “Field of Dreams Ghost Players,” on grounds that the movie producers inflated the value of state tax credits by submitting phony evidence of in-kind contributions that were not, in fact, made to the project.

Ghost Players argues that the Polk County District Court got it right when it ruled that the agency lacked authority to revoke the tax credits. Ghost Players argues that the State cannot unilaterally vacate a final agency action four years after the fact on the basis of information that was available from the beginning.

The Department of Economic Development, in urging the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court, argues that it did not vacate a final agency action but issued a new one based on new evidence that the tax-credits applicant fabricated information about the scope of the film’s financial support.

Is an employee covered by a collective-bargaining agreement entitled to an exception to the ‘at-will’ employment doctrine?

By: Rox Laird on November 6th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments on Nov. 13 in an appeal brought by a former state administrative law judge who contends she was fired for blowing the whistle on her boss for improperly influencing unemployment insurance appeals.

Susan Ackerman, an administrative law judge in the unemployment Insurance Appeals Bureau of Iowa Workforce Development for 15 years, was fired in 2015. The stated reason was misconduct, but Ackerman maintains she was fired in retaliation for her testimony before a legislative committee alleging that ALJs were pressured to decide unemployment cases in favor of employers.

Ackerman sued the State, arguing her termination violated her rights and state law. In the appeal to be heard by the justices next week, she is asking the Supreme Court to reverse a Polk County District Court judge’s ruling dismissing one of her claims in that suit – that she was illegally discharged in retaliation for her efforts to expose what she saw as the Workforce Development director’s abuse of authority.

The Supreme Court has recognized an exception to the doctrine that “at-will” employees generally may be fired without cause in cases where “the discharge would undermine a clearly defined and well-recognized public policy of the state,” such as protecting an employee who publicly exposes mismanagement or illegal activities by an employer.

The trial court held that this exception is not available to Ackerman, however, because she was covered by a collective-bargaining agreement as a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). That union’s agreement says the employer cannot take reprisal action against an employee for disclosing information “which the employee reasonably believes is evidence of a violation of law or rule, mismanagement, a gross abuse of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

In a brief submitted to the Supreme Court, Ackerman’s legal counsel argues that just because the exception is made to the employment-at-will doctrine does not mean it is limited to at-will employees. “The Iowa Supreme Court has never held as much, nor has the Court ever listed being an at-will employee as an element of the claim,” her counsel argues.

“Employees subject to a [collective bargaining agreement (CBA)], such as Ackerman, should not be barred from pursuing a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy merely because they are subject to a CBA,” the brief argues. “At the very least they should be allowed to plead the claim. Then, at the appropriate fact-finding stage of a case, a trial court would determine if in fact the CBA provides the same protections as afforded by the tort, thereby alleviating the need for access to the claim.”

The State, in a brief in support of Workforce Development submitted by Attorney General Tom Miller, disputes Ackerman’s reading of Supreme Court precedent, saying “this Court clearly and unequivocally recognized the wrongful termination tort as solely a limited and narrow exception to the employment at-will doctrine.”

The Attorney General says there is a good reason for that: “Employees covered under a contract have remedies not available to at-will employees: the ability to not only negotiate the circumstances under which a termination may occur, but also, to pursue remedies to enforce all expressed and/or implied terms of the contract.”

The appeal in Susan Ackerman v. State of Iowa is scheduled for argument at 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 13. Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read the parties’ briefs.

Statistical Review of the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2016-17 Term: Hints at what to expect this term

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2017

To get an idea of what to expect in the Iowa Supreme Court’s new term that begins this week, it’s worth reviewing some statistics from the 2016-17 term. Based on past performance, the justices will be like-minded on most cases, they will cleave into two camps when they sharply disagree, and Chief Justice Mark Cady will likely supply the deciding vote on many closely divided decisions.

That has been the pattern in recent terms since three justices were replaced in 2010 and Cady became Chief Justice. And, it seems likely to continue.

But, first, some overall statistics from the 2016-17 term that ended in June:

Overall statistics

The seven justices cranked out 182 opinions last term – including majority decisions, concurrences and dissents – in ruling on 116 cases. The court decided 98 civil and criminal cases, which is about par for the court, and 18 attorney discipline cases. Although the disciplinary cases have limited impact beyond individual lawyers, they require as much time as any other appeal and constitute about 15 percent of the court’s workload.

Since the creation of the Iowa Court of Appeals in 1976, the Supreme Court’s adjudicative (as opposed to administrative) workload has been eased. About 95 percent of appeals from the trial courts are diverted to the Court of Appeals, which decides about 1,200 cases each year.

The Supreme Court’s case load includes those direct appeals from trial courts it retains plus petitions for further review of decisions by the Court of Appeals. Forty-two percent of the cases decided in 2016-17 were direct appeals, whereas 35 percent were cases heard on petition for further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The opinion output per justice varies by term. Justice Brent Appel was the most prolific author this term, writing 34 opinions (16 for the majority, six concurring opinions and 12 dissents). Justice Edward Mansfield was close behind, with 30 opinions (16 for the majority, four concurrences and 10 dissents).

Justices Appel, Waterman and Mansfield led in writing majority opinions, with 16 each; Zager was close behind with 15. Justices filing the most dissents were Appel (12), Mansfield (10) and Wiggins (nine).

Seventy-eight of the 116 cases, or about two-thirds of the total, were decided unanimously. The seven justices were divided in about a third of the cases.

When the court is divided

A distinct pattern is evident when the overall voting numbers are broken down by justice.

Cady not only leads the court as the Chief Justice but as the most reliable swing vote as well. Where Cady votes, you will almost always find a majority of the seven justices. In fact, Cady filed dissents in only three decisions, and those all came in partial concurrences/dissents.

Looking at just the 21 decisions where the court was split 4-3 and a single vote made the difference, a clear pattern emerges:

Three justices – Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager – were in the majority in 12 cases with the help of Cady’s vote, and they were in dissent in nine of those cases without it.

Three justices – Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht – were in the majority in 10 of the 4-3 decisions thanks to Cady, but they were on the losing side in 11 cases without his vote.

Put another way, the Chief Justice supplied the fourth vote in all 21 of the rulings decided by a 4-3 vote, although some of those votes came in separate concurring opinions where Cady disagreed with aspects of the majority on some points.

Overall, looking at all non-unanimous decisions, the Chief Justice was most often in agreement with Justice Zager (70 percent of the time). Justices Appel and Hecht were in agreement 94 percent of the time; likewise, Mansfield and Waterman were in agreement 94 percent of the time.

When justices recuse

Appellate judges, from time to time, do not participate in a case because of a conflict of interest – real or perceived. Last term, Appel sat out five cases; Hecht, Waterman and Zager two each; Cady and Wiggins one each. Mansfield participated in all cases. The justices do not announce why they recuse themselves from a case; they simply do not show up at oral argument.

The court was particularly short-handed on the Des Moines Water Works case (on certified questions from the federal court in Sioux City): Justices Wiggins and Hecht did not participate. The remaining five justices were split 3-2. Had Justices Wiggins and Hecht participated, the outcome conceivably could have swung either way.

Statistics complied by Hilary Hippen-Leak, Director of Marketing and Library Services at Nyemaster Goode.

Overall Opinion Authorship:

4-3 Decisions Opinion Authorship:

Justice Agreement: Non-Unanimous Cases:

Iowa Supreme Court’s September lineup: 26 cases on the calendar with 15 oral arguments

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2017

The Iowa Supreme Court begins its 2017-18 term Sept. 13 with a calendar packed with oral arguments over five days and two road trips to hear arguments outside the Judicial Branch Building.

The court has scheduled to hear arguments in 15 cases in September, and 11 cases will be submitted without oral arguments. (Go to the Supreme Court’s website for a complete list of the cases on the September argument calendar.)

Following are brief backgrounds on several cases of interest. Watch this site for more detailed previews in select cases ahead of the argument days.

Withdrawing a guilty plea

Schmidt v. State of Iowa (Sept. 13): Jacob Lee Schmidt seeks to withdraw his guilty plea to charges of intent to commit sex abuse and incest, and now argues he is actually innocent after his accuser recanted his testimony.

This case was argued and submitted to the court in February but held over for reargument this term. The court asked the parties to submit additional briefs focusing on several questions, among them: What standard should apply if a guilty plea does not always bar an actual-innocence claim? How does the district court account for the statute of limitations, the type of evidence of actual innocence and the applicability of the four-part test for newly discovered evidence established by the court in 2016, or the test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995?

See our earlier post on this case before it was argued last term and a recap of the oral argument.

Legality of traffic-enforcement cameras

City of Cedar Rapids v. Leaf, and Behm, et al. v. City of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA (Sept. 20): Among the issues raised in these two appeals: Do traffic citations generated by automated traffic cameras violate the due process, equal protection and privileges and immunities provisions of the U.S. and Iowa constitutions? Did the city unconstitutionally delegate core police functions to a private contractor to install and operate the speed cameras? Did the city have clear and convincing evidence of a speeding violation? Does the city’s ordinance unlawfully grant jurisdiction to an administrative board or hearing officer?

Juvenile criminal sentences

The court is again asked to revisit the issue of juvenile sentencing in light of a string of U.S. Supreme Court and Iowa Supreme Court decisions regarding long prison sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. Three cases are on the argument calendar for September:

State v. White (Sept. 13; non-oral): Khasif Rasheed White appeals his mandatory prison sentence arguing the trial judge erred in ruling on his resentencing in light of the court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle that the district court must hold a special hearing focusing on the factors unique to the offender before sentencing a juvenile defendant to mandatory minimum prison sentence.

In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child (Sept. 13): The appellant – who was 14 at the time of the offense – argues that being placed on the sex-abuse registry is cruel and unusual punishment for a juvenile adjudicated as delinquent for a crime that would trigger the registry requirement for an adult.

State v. Zarte (Sept. 14): Rene Zarte argues that a sentencing statute amended in light of the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in State v. Lyle, which imposed limits on mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders, is unconstitutional because it mandates that sentencing courts consider improper sentencing factors for juveniles and removes discretion from trial courts to prescribe individualized sentences for juvenile offenders.

Fourth Amendment

State v. Ingram (Sept. 19 – Hoover High School). Bion Blake Ingram appeals his conviction for possession of methamphetamine, arguing the trial court should have excluded evidence obtained from the search of the contents of a car he was driving. Police searched the vehicle to inventory the contents prior to impounding the vehicle and found a bag containing illegal drugs. Ingram, who was borrowing the car, said the bag was not his nor was he aware of it contents.

State v. Brown (Sept. 20): Danielle Brown appeals her conviction of possession of marijuana, arguing the evidence obtained from a search of her purse should have been excluded at trial. Police discovered the marijuana in a search of her purse, which was near her on the floor of a room she and several other people were found in when police executed a search warrant. Brown was not named in the warrant.

State v. Scheffert (Sept. 14; non-oral): Michael Scheffert appeals his conviction of possession of marijuana arguing the police stop was illegal because he was stopped for driving in a county park after the 10:30 p.m. closing when there were no signs posted identifying it as a park or stating a closing time.

Removal of a county attorney

State v. Watkins (Sept. 14): Abraham Watkins appeals his removal by the Van Buren District Court from his elected position of Van Buren county attorney for misconduct or maladministration by engaging in sexual harassment. Watkins argues his removal was illegal because it was initiated by the Van Buren Board of Supervisors, who are not authorized by statute to file a petition to remove a public official from office. Watkins also argues that it was not proved for purposes of removal that he committed sexual harassment with “evil” or “corrupt” intent.

Employment, attorney-client privilege

Fenceroy v. Gelita USA et al. (Sept. 15 – Iowa City): Defendants in this employment discrimination and harassment case argue on interlocutory appeal that the trial court incorrectly overruled their motion for an order to protect privileged attorney-client communication and work product. The district court ruled that the attorneys waived their right to the privilege in asserting a defense strategy that put the disputed attorney-client and work-product information an issue in the trial. In the alternative, the defendants argue that the trial court should have considered whether other means exist to obtain the information.

Inheritance taxes

Tyler and Alcorn v. Iowa Department of Revenue (Sept. 20): Paula Tyler and Mark Alcorn argue that Iowa’s inheritance-tax law that creates two classes of stepchildren violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. State law defines stepchild as “the child of a person who was married to the decedent at the time of the decedent’s death, or the child of a person to whom the decedent was married, which person died during the marriage to the decedent.” If the natural parent dies during the marriage, the stepchildren’s inheritance from the stepparent is exempt from inheritance taxes. If the marriage if their parent to the stepparent ends in divorce, the stepchildren pay the interitance tax. This, distinction between two similarly situated individuals, the appellants argue, is unconstitutional.

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