Iowa Supreme Court: Cuts in public-sector collective bargaining rights meet constitutional muster

By: Rox Laird on May 21st, 2019

Amendments to Iowa Code Chapter 20 that substantially reduced the collective bargaining rights of most state and local government employees did not violate union members’ equal protection or free association rights under the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled May 19.

Public employee unions had urged the Court to strike down as unconstitutional collective bargaining amendments passed in 2017 by the Iowa Legislature, which they saw as gutting their rights to collectively bargain on a wide range of issues, including wages, benefits and working conditions.

In four separate rulings, the Court rejected the unions’ constitutional argument, saying the changes were properly within the policymaking powers of the Iowa General Assembly.

“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” the Court said. “We conclude the 2017 amendments withstand the constitutional challenges.” The justices added that the plaintiffs concede that there is no constitutional right to public-sector collective bargaining.


Iowa Supreme Court affirms Carroll Airport’s decision affecting a towering grain elevator in its flight path

By: Rox Laird on May 15th, 2019

The Carroll Airport Commission ordered a farmer to remove a 12-story grain elevator erected near its runway because it presents a flight hazard. The Federal Aviation Administration, however, issued a contrary opinion saying the elevator could remain.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in a decision handed down May 10 (Carroll Airport Commission v. Danner), ruled that local authority prevails over federal, and the grain elevator will have to be removed or shortened.

Carroll County farmers Loren and Pan Danner erected a 127-foot-tall “grain leg” to lift and distribute grain to five storage bins. The elevator rises 60 feet higher than the airport’s protected airspace.


Iowa Supreme Court upholds Utilities Board rule that eases regulation of wind farms

By: Rox Laird on May 13th, 2019

Is a wind farm with 170 windmills spread over 80 square miles a single power plant or a collection of separate power plants?

According to the Iowa Utilities Board, it is the latter, and the Iowa Supreme Court deferred to that statutory interpretation in a decision handed down May 3.

The Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Edward Mansfield, said in Mathis v. Iowa Utilities Board that 170 windmills on a Palo Alto County wind farm should be considered not a single power-generating “facility” for legal purposes but a smaller collection of windmills tied together by a single “gathering line.”

The distinction is important because defining the entire collection of windmills as a single power-generating facility would put the wind farm in the class of large power electric-generating facilities that require the Utilities Board to issue a certificate of public convenience, use, and necessity, which would have required an extensive study of the project’s impact on the environment and affected residents.


When are police reports introduced in a civil trial public records? It depends, the Iowa Supreme Court says

By: Rox Laird on April 11th, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court has clarified two previous rulings that reached seemingly contradictory positions on whether police investigative reports must be made public under the Iowa Open Records Act.

The clarification came in a ruling handed down April 5 in Jerime Eron Mitchell and Bracken Ann Mitchell v. City of Cedar Rapids and Officer Lucas Jones. The Court upheld a Linn County District Court order making public police investigative reports produced through discovery in a civil lawsuit filed by the family of a black man shot and paralyzed by a white police officer in a traffic stop.

The ruling spells out how the Iowa Open Records Act and previous court decisions govern the production of police reports in such civil cases:

1. Police investigative reports do not lose their status as confidential records under the Iowa Open Records Act when an investigation is concluded; however, the records law does not  prevent civil litigants from accessing police reports through discovery. Thus, confidential police reports produced through discovery may have to be sealed by the trial court with a protective order.

2. The Open Records Act exempts from confidentiality police reports that give the immediate facts and circumstances of a crime, and trial courts should apply a balancing test prescribed by the records act to determine how far that exemption reaches into police files.

3. The Court reaffirmed its 1994 decision in Hawk Eye v. Jackson, which applied a three-part balancing test to determine whether police investigative reports should be released to the public.

4. And, the Court explained how the Hawk Eye decision differs from – and is yet consistent with – its 2012 ruling in American Civil Liberties Union v. Atlantic Community School District, where the Court said a balancing test was not necessary to conclude that the records in question in that case were confidential.


Judges must know offenders’ ability to pay before ordering restitution, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on March 26th, 2019

Sentencing courts must know how much a convicted offender is reasonably able to pay before ordering payment of restitution to the State, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in three separate cases March 22.

In all three cases, the sentencing courts ordered offenders to pay restitution without first determining their ability to pay, which violates Iowa’s restitution statute, the Court held in a 6-0 decision. Justice Christopher McDonald, who will be officially sworn in on April 5, did not participate in the decision.

In the lead opinion, State v. Charles Raymond Albright, written by Justice David Wiggins, the Court dismissed Albright’s appeal of his kidnapping conviction and sentence but upheld his claim regarding restitution payment ordered by the sentencing court.


Iowa Supreme Court says insurance liability must be shared in a tragic shooting death

By: Rox Laird on March 12th, 2019

A couple of teenage boys are out for some dirt-bike and ATV riding at rural retreat when one of the boys is fatally injured in a tragic shooting accident. The farmhouse on the retreat where the shooting occurred is insured by a homeowners’ policy and by a separate commercial general liability policy.

Is the issuer of the commercial policy on the hook for a share of a $900,000 settlement paid to the victim’s family?

Yes, says the Iowa Supreme Court, in Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Auto-Owners Mutual Insurance Co., handed down March 8.


The Iowa Supreme Court grapples with alleged jury confusion with instructions in a comparative fault case, but declines to order a new trial

By: Rox Laird on March 6th, 2019

Jurors in a Pottawattamie County medical malpractice trial submitted a question to the court during jury deliberations about the meaning of instructions given to them by the trial judge for apportioning fault to a settled party, but the judge did not commit a prejudicial error by failing to clarify his instructions, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously March 1.

The appellant, a 33-year-old resident of a halfway house following her release from prison, sued the halfway house and an emergency room doctor for failing to immediately diagnose her symptoms of a stroke, resulting in her partial paralysis.

The woman settled with the halfway house prior to the malpractice trial, which was then narrowed to the question of the emergency room doctor’s liability. Based on Iowa’s comparative fault statute, the judge in the verdict form asked the jurors to decide if there was any fault by either the doctor or the halfway house and, if so, what percentage to allocate to either one.


Iowa Supreme Court, citing the Iowa Constitution, limits warrantless searches of containers in impounded vehicles

By: Rox Laird on July 17th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court added another category of police searches where it invoked the Iowa Constitution to extend broader protection than the U.S. Supreme Court has granted under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For drivers whose vehicles are impounded and searched by law enforcement, the ruling in State v. Ingram handed down June 29 means closed containers may not be opened as part of an inventory of the contents of the vehicle without a warrant or consent. For law-enforcement authorities, it means jumping through more hoops before searching and inventorying contents of impounded vehicles.

Bion Ingram was stopped by a police officer in Newton for a traffic violation and the borrowed car he was driving was impounded because the plates and registration sticker did not match. As part of the inventory search, officers opened a small cloth bag on the floor and found a glass pipe containing methamphetamine.

The seven-member Court unanimously agreed that the search was unconstitutional, but the justices split 4-3 on whether to apply the U.S. or the Iowa Constitution.

The majority cited Article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution in an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht.

Justice Edward Mansfield filed a special concurring opinion, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager, which argued that opening and searching the bag violated the Fourth Amendment because the Newton police did not follow a “standardized local policy” in searching the bag, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court. Mansfield said there was no reason to go beyond that and decide this case based on the Iowa Constitution.

Chief Justice Cady, in a separate concurrence, pointed out that inventory searches give law enforcement officers “free rein to conduct a warrantless investigatory search and to seize incriminating property, despite the doctrine’s genesis as a means of protecting private property, guarding against false theft claims, and protecting officers from potential harm.”

Article I Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution’s says “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable seizures and searches shall not be violated,” which is nearly identical to the wording of the federal Fourth Amendment.

But the Iowa Supreme Court has increasingly parted company with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment holdings where the Iowa justices believe Fourth Amendment protections have been eroded. That is especially true, Appel wrote, where the federal court has moved away from requiring a warrant and toward a “reasonableness” standard.

Appel traced the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolution on inventory searches since 1973 where the Court has found inventory searches to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The Court rejected a case-by-case analysis and instead requires that law-enforcement authorities have a local policy for inventory searches. Thus, the search of a backpack found in a vehicle was upheld because police in that case had such a policy, while in a subsequent ruling the search of a suitcase in the trunk of a car was rejected because police lacked a policy.

Appel wrote that empowering local law enforcement to determine the extent of Fourth Amendment protections in inventory searches is “rich with irony, as the Fourth Amendment was explicitly designed as a bulwark to restrain law enforcement in the context of searches and seizures.”

The Iowa Supreme Court, he said, took the opportunity in this case to “stake out higher constitutional ground” and “to restore the balance between citizens and law enforcement by adopting a tighter legal framework for warrantless inventory searches and seizures of automobiles under Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution than provided under the recent precedents of the United States Supreme Court.”

Appel said the Iowa Supreme Court’s holding does not mean warrantless impoundments are never appropriate, but he suggested that police explore alternatives when the goal is not investigative but to protect property, such as allowing the vehicle to be parked and locked by the driver or calling a friend to pick up the vehicle. “Impoundment of a vehicle should be permitted only if these options have been adequately explored.”


Divided Iowa Supreme Court keeps county attorney on the job, despite sexual harassment complaints

By: Rox Laird on July 12th, 2018

Van Buren County Attorney Abraham Watkins was removed from office by a District Court judge who ruled that Watkins “engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment” of female employees.

The court record reciting Watkins’ sexually explicit behavior included asking a female employee about her vagina, complaining that her breasts were distracting, showing her nude photos of his wife, discussing his marital sex life and on more than one occasion appearing in the office in boxer briefs.

Reviewing the case on appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed that sexual harassment is unacceptable, but it concluded in a 4-3 decision that Watkins’ behavior did not warrant a court order removing a public official elected by the people.

The justices on June 29 issued three separate opinions covering nearly 70 pages that reveal how the Court was torn between respecting the role of the electorate, not judges, to say who is fit for office while not seeming to minimize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Three justices – Bruce Zager, writing for himself, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman – concluded that despite Watkins’ “morally reprehensible” behavior it was not enough to remove him from office.

Three justices – Chief Justice Mark Cady, writing in a dissent joined by Daryl Hecht, and David Wiggins writing in a separate dissent – concluded that Watkins willfully created a sexually hostile work environment for female employees on his staff and that he deserved to be removed from office.

Justice Brent Appel supplied the deciding vote in a separate opinion in which he disagreed with Zager’s reasoning while concurring that, however repulsive, Watkins’ actions fell short of clearing the high hurdle for a judicial decision removing a public official from office.

The Legislature gave the courts authority to remove a public official from office for, among other things, “willful misconduct,” and the pivotal question before the Court in this case was whether Watkins’ misconduct was “willful.”

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 1913 case defined “willfully” for purposes of removal to mean a public official who acts “intentionally, deliberately, with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty.”

Zager wrote that it is not a question of whether a “reasonable person would find that the public official acted contrary to his or her duties or even unlawfully” but a question of the public official’s “subjective intent to act with a bad or evil purpose” in committing wrongdoing.

“As morally reprehensible as we find Watkins’s behavior,” Zager wrote, “this is not the standard by which we need to analyze whether the State has met its high burden to establish whether Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office by creating a sexually hostile work environment. We are a court of law, not a court of public opinion.”

Chief Justice Cady disagreed, faulting the plurality opinion for looking at the case from Watkins’ perspective, not the employee’s: “Today’s decision is intimately tied to a bygone era of law that shielded men who knew better, at the expense of their female employees, who were required to abandon their jobs or forced to accept harassment as a condition of employment.”

Justice Appel wrote in his concurring opinion that while he agreed with much of Cady’s opinion, he concluded that Watkins’ behavior did not meet the “extraordinarily demanding standard” for removing an elected official from office.

“We have required what amounts to ‘specific intent’ to do wrong in a criminal or quasi-criminal way and the need for heroic action by the court to save the day,” Appel wrote. “In the end, I conclude that Watkins’s behavior approaches, but does not cross, the heroic and stringent penal or quasi-criminal standard for removal articulated in our historic caselaw.”


Iowa Supreme Court splits, again, on a juvenile sentencing case

By: Rox Laird on June 22nd, 2018

Iowa’s mandatory sex-offender registry for juveniles who commit a sex offense by force is the equivalent of criminal punishment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 15, but it’s not unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus, the Court continued its incremental approach to deciding juvenile sentencing cases that it has followed for the past several terms. These decisions come in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18 based on the idea that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a similar approach on juvenile sentencing, though the justices are typically split 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady providing the deciding vote depending on the question. The Court followed that pattern in its ruling in In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child.

There were actually two majorities in this decision, both written by Cady, with the other six justices divided into separate camps on the punitive and constitutional questions of the sex-offender registry.

Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the part of Cady’s opinion holding that mandatory registration for juveniles is punishment – thus making up a majority on that issue – but they dissented on the holding that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The tables were turned by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager: They dissented from the majority holding that the registry amounts to punishment, but they joined the chief justice to create a majority to say the registration requirement is not unconstitutional.

T.H. was adjudicated as delinquent at the age of 14 for forcing a 16-year-old girl into oral sex against her will. He was placed in a residential sex-offender treatment program and required to register as a sex offender.

Juvenile sex offenders on the registry are generally barred from being near schools (except their own), libraries, child-care facilities, dependent-adult facilities, pools and playgrounds. Similar restrictions apply to working or volunteering around children. They must appear in person every three months to verify compliance with the requirements.

In deciding whether these requirements are cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first addressed the question of whether they amount to punishment. The Court weighed seven factors set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether a statute is punitive, and concluded that, on balance, Iowa’s registration requirement is punitive.

“The statute imposes an affirmative restraint akin to supervised probation,” Cady wrote. “It mandates the mass dissemination of offender records that are historically kept confidential to promote the juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation. And the sheer number of restrictions imposed on juveniles, given the demonstrated low juvenile recidivism rate, is excessive in light of the civil purpose of preventing multiple offenses.”

T.H. argued that the registration requirement for juveniles is the equivalent of an adult punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, but the Court disagreed, in part because the juvenile court has the authority to revoke the registration requirement when its dispositional order is terminated.

“We find it is not excessively severe for the Legislature to put additional constraints in place during the period when a juvenile adjudicated delinquent of an aggravated sexual offense is receiving reformative services, but has not yet been deemed rehabilitated,” Cady wrote.

Iowa’s mandatory sex-offender registry for juveniles who commit a sex offense by force is the equivalent of criminal punishment, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 15, but it’s not unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

Thus, the Court continued its incremental approach to deciding juvenile sentencing cases that it has followed for the past several terms. These decisions come in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court rulings declaring that certain sentences are cruel and unusual punishment for offenders under age 18 based on the idea that juveniles are fundamentally different than adults.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a similar approach on juvenile sentencing, though the justices are typically split 4-3 with Chief Justice Mark Cady providing the deciding vote depending on the question. The Court followed that pattern in its ruling in In the Interest of T.H., Minor Child.

There were actually two majorities in this decision, both written by Cady, with the other six justices divided into separate camps on the punitive and constitutional questions of the sex-offender registry.

Justices Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht joined the part of Cady’s opinion holding that mandatory registration for juveniles is punishment – thus making up a majority on that issue – but they dissented on the holding that it is not unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The tables were turned by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager: They dissented from the majority holding that the registry amounts to punishment, but they joined the chief justice to create a majority to say the registration requirement is not unconstitutional.

T.H. was adjudicated as delinquent at the age of 14 for forcing a 16-year-old girl into oral sex against her will. He was placed in a residential sex-offender treatment program and required to register as a sex offender.

Juvenile sex offenders on the registry are generally barred from being near schools (except their own), libraries, child-care facilities, dependent-adult facilities, pools and playgrounds. Similar restrictions apply to working or volunteering around children. They must appear in person every three months to verify compliance with the requirements.

In deciding whether these requirements are cruel and unusual punishment, the Court first addressed the question of whether they amount to punishment. The Court weighed seven factors set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining whether a statute is punitive, and concluded that, on balance, Iowa’s registration requirement is punitive.

“The statute imposes an affirmative restraint akin to supervised probation,” Cady wrote. “It mandates the mass dissemination of offender records that are historically kept confidential to promote the juvenile’s potential for rehabilitation. And the sheer number of restrictions imposed on juveniles, given the demonstrated low juvenile recidivism rate, is excessive in light of the civil purpose of preventing multiple offenses.”

T.H. argued that the registration requirement for juveniles is the equivalent of an adult punishment, and therefore unconstitutional, but the Court disagreed, in part because the juvenile court has the authority to revoke the registration requirement when its dispositional order is terminated.

“We find it is not excessively severe for the Legislature to put additional constraints in place during the period when a juvenile adjudicated delinquent of an aggravated sexual offense is receiving reformative services, but has not yet been deemed rehabilitated,” Cady wrote.


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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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