Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in five cases Oct. 16 and 17

By: Rox Laird on October 12th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in five cases Oct. 16 and 17, and nine cases will be submitted to the court without oral argument. Following are summaries of the October cases. [Go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page to read the briefs filed with the Court in these cases.]

State v. Gordon

Scheduled for argument Oct. 16, 9 a.m.

The State appeals a ruling of the Iowa Court of Appeals ordering that Sean David Gordon be resentenced because the Floyd County District Court relied on results of sex-offender risk-assessment instruments not specifically authorized by statute or rule in sentencing him to up to 10 years prison for statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl.

Gordon argues the sentencing court violated his constitutional due-process rights by using statistical tools to assess his potential to reoffend. The Court of Appeals declined to reach the constitutional question, ruling instead that the trial court erred because no state statute or rule authorizes the use of the risk-assessment instruments in deciding whether to sentence a sex offender to prison or some other type of supervision.

The Court of Appeals, hearing the case en banc, was split 5-4 and produced two separate dissenting opinions. The appeals court noted that some critics, including other state courts, have questioned the validity of assessing recidivism risk based on group data as opposed to data specific to high-risk offenders. The Iowa Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the issue, and this case and two others to be submitted on Oct. 16, will be an opportunity to do so.


U.S. Supreme Court rejects appeal from an Iowa surrogate mother seeking custody of the child

By: Rox Laird on October 3rd, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling on the enforceability of a contract signed by a woman who acted as a surrogate mother for an Iowa couple unable to conceive a child of their own.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 16 that the contract was valid, that the surrogate mother and her husband are not the child’s genetic parents and that the District Court correctly awarded custody of the child to the biological father.


U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal from an Iowa surrogate mother seeking custody of the child

By: Rox Laird on September 20th, 2018

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to consider whether to accept the appeal of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling on the enforceability of a contract signed by a woman who acted as a surrogate mother for an Iowa couple unable to conceive a child of their own.

The surrogate mother, identified as T.B. in court documents, was impregnated with embryos fertilized with the intended biological father’s sperm and ova from an anonymous donor. She changed her mind after the child was born, and sued the Cedar Rapids couple in Linn County District Court, arguing that the surrogacy contract was unconstitutional and that her parental rights should not have been terminated.


The 2017-18 term marked the end of an era for the Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on September 19th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court’s 2018-19 term that began Sept. 4 marks the first change in court personnel in nearly a decade, with the retirement of Justice Bruce Zager and the appointment of former District Judge Susan Christensen to take his place.

The Court’s 2017-18 term was the final chapter of the era that began after the removal by voters of three justices, the appointment of Zager, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman to replace them, and the elevation of Mark Cady to Chief Justice.

In the term that ended in June, the Court decided 102 cases, although three additional cases were resubmitted for consideration this term, and one case was dismissed.

The largest percentage of cases (44 percent) the Court heard were further review of Court of Appeals decisions, and 36 percent were direct appeals from the District Courts.

The Supreme Court reversed the trial courts in 45 percent of the cases heard on appeal, and affirmed in 37 percent, with 15 percent yielding in mixed results (i.e., partially affirmed, partially reversed).

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in 64 percent of the cases and affirmed the lower court in 25 percent of the cases. That reversal rate is not surprising, since the Supreme Court typically accepts appeals of only a small fraction of the 1,200 cases decided by the Court of Appeals each year, and the justices accept appeals on further review only in those cases where they believe reconsideration is warranted.


Iowa Supreme Court to hear oral argument at Johnston High School Monday night, and at the Judicial Branch Building Tuesday

By: Rox Laird on September 14th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments at 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Johnston High School in a drunk-driving appeal that raises constitutional issues. The justices will be back at the Judicial Branch Building Tuesday to hear arguments in three cases on Sept. 18. A fourth case will be submitted to the Court that day without oral argument. Following are brief summaries of those cases (go to On Brief’s Cases in the Pipeline page for links to briefs).


Eight oral arguments on tap for the Iowa Supreme Court this week

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in eight cases Wednesday and Thursday, and six cases will be submitted to the Court without oral argument. Following are brief summaries of the cases.


Question to be argued before the Iowa Supreme Court: Games of skill or chance?

By: Rox Laird on September 6th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments Friday in Iowa City in a case that could determine whether gaming devices that resemble slot machines could be placed in Iowa businesses other than bars.

The Court will hear oral arguments at 10:30 a.m. Friday in Banilla Games Inc. v. Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals at the Levitt Auditorium at the University of Iowa College of Law. The case presents a question of interpreting the gaming statute on which the Court has not ruled before.

Banilla Games, a North Carolina company, manufactures and sells electronic games that resemble touch-screen slot machines. Players purchase credits, with one cent equaling one credit, and are challenged to match or complete sets of images on the screen. Winners receive a ticket or voucher worth up to $50 that can be redeemed for merchandise within the commercial establishment where the game is played.

At issue is whether Banilla’s Superior Skill game machines must be registered with the State under the gambling regulations in Iowa Code Chapter 99B. Gaming devices that require registration are limited by the statute to businesses holding liquor licenses, whereas non-registered devices can be placed in other locations, such as convenience stores.

The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals ruled that Banilla’s Superior Skill machines are subject to the registration requirement, and the agency’s ruling was upheld in a July 2017 decision by Polk County District Judge Mary Pat Gunderson.

Banilla argues in its appeal of the District Court decision that its machines are games of skill, not chance, and thus do not have to be registered.


District Judge Susan Christensen named to the Iowa Supreme Court

By: Rox Laird on August 2nd, 2018

Susan Christensen told her husband some years ago that she wanted to be a judge, and she reached that goal when she became a District Associate Judge in 2007 and a District Judge in 2015. But her climb up the judiciary ladder did not end there: On Wednesday, Christensen was appointed as an Associate Justice on Iowa’s highest court.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Christensen’s appointment to the Iowa Supreme Court at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. She replaces Justice Bruce Zager, who will retire in September.

Christensen, 56, a Harlan native who worked in private practice and as an assistant county attorney before being appointed to the District Court in 2015, was among 21 applicants for the Court and three finalists forwarded to the governor by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. (For more information on the applicants, the Iowa Judicial Branch has posted all 21 applications and videos of their interviews with the commission.)


Felony-murder rule can be applied to juveniles, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the felony-murder rule may be applied to juvenile offenders in a decision upholding the sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole for a defendant who was 16 at the time of the crime.

Keyon Harrison was found guilty by a Polk County jury of first-degree murder for his role in the robbery and murder of a marijuana dealer. Prosecutors conceded at trial that the evidence suggested it was Harrison’s 17-year-old companion, not Harrison, who fatally shot the victim. But Harrison was found guilty of aiding and abetting the robbery and murder, and that is the equivalent of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule.

The Court, in a 4-2 decision, ruled that using the felony-murder rule against a juvenile violates neither the U.S. nor the Iowa Constitution. The majority opinion was written by Justice Bruce Zager joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman.  Justice Brent Appel filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice David Wiggins. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The felony-murder rule, which has ancient roots in common law, is codified in Chapter 707 of the Iowa Code and transforms forcible felonies such as robbery into first-degree murder if a person is killed in the course of the felony, regardless of intent or premeditation.

By arguing the felony-murder rule is unconstitutional for juveniles, the Court said Harrison is asking for greater due-process rights for juvenile offenders than adult offenders. But the justices drew a distinction between criminal offenses and criminal sentences applied to juveniles.

While the Iowa Supreme Court has recognized that juveniles are “constitutionally different from adults,” the Court has never held that the elements of criminal offenses should be transformed to account for that difference, Zager wrote. Quoting from an earlier decision, he said the Court’s “constitutional analysis is not about excusing juvenile behavior, but imposing punishment in a way that is consistent with our understanding of humanity today.” This is achieved with individualized sentencing, Zager wrote.

While Harrison argues that life in prison is “grossly disproportionate” in his case, he was immediately eligible for parole, thus benefitting from the Court’s 2016 decision in State v. Sweet that held that juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The Parole Board provides juvenile offenders individualized analysis of the conditions of their past lives and their progress toward rehabilitation in deciding whether to approve early release, which Zager said is consistent with the Court’s approach to juvenile sentencing.

In his dissent, Justice Appel framed the Harrison case stark terms:

“The question in this case is whether an unarmed child may be subject to life in prison with the possibility of parole for participating in a marijuana robbery where a coparticipant brought a gun to the crime and killed the robbery victim.”


Defendant did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act for discrimination it was unaware of, Iowa Supreme Court rules

By: Rox Laird on June 29th, 2018

An applicant for a firefighter position is rejected after the employer’s consulting physician concludes the applicant is medically unqualified without disclosing the reason: The applicant had recently had symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).

Did the employer violate the disability discrimination provision of the Iowa Civil Rights Act?

Not according to the Iowa Supreme Court in a ruling handed down June 22. The Court, in a 4-2 decision in Deeds v. City of Marion, held that since the city was not aware of Nolan Deeds’ MS diagnosis, it did not violate his rights under the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

“The City is not required to be a mind reader,” Justice Thomas Waterman wrote for the Court. The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager. Justices Brent Appel and David Wiggins dissented. Justice Daryl Hecht did not participate in the case.

The Court also issued a second, one-paragraph, opinion, Deeds v. City of Cedar Rapids, which announced the same decision with the same lineup of justices. Nolan Deeds sued both cities individually after his applications were rejected by both cities for the same reasons.

In the Marion case, the physician, who was employed by UnityPoint clinic, learned of Deeds’ MS diagnosis but did not disclose it to the city, and the city did not inquire as to why the physician said he was medically unqualified.

Thus, the Court held, that meant the city did not violate the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which defines unfair discrimination as “refusing to hire” an applicant “because of” a disability.

“When the City rescinded its job offer to Deeds, the City did not know he had MS,” Waterman wrote. “The City only knew that the physician reported Deeds was not medically qualified for the firefighter position.” Thus, he added, “We conclude that Deeds cannot show the City discriminated against him ‘because of’ his disability.”

The City of Marion had no duty to inquire as to why Deeds was deemed medically unqualified, the Court said, but Deeds did have a duty to request an accommodation for his disability. It cited a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit saying that, otherwise, a disabled employee might keep the disability a secret and later sue for failure to accommodate.

The Court also rejected Deeds’ argument that the UnityPoint physician who conducted the pre-employment physical acted as an agent for the City and, as such, the City had knowledge of his disability. Rather, the Court said, the physician acted as an independent contractor hired by the City and she exercised independent judgment.

Writing in dissent, Justice Appel said a “flat-out” ban on anyone with recent MS symptoms as opposed to an individualized medical assessment “is precisely the kind of stereotyping that the disability-discrimination provisions of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA) are designed to prevent.”

In this case, the City of Marion avoided the Civil Rights Act with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach by contracting out the physical examination to a third party and then not following up with the physician to find out why an applicant is deemed medically unqualified for a job.


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