Iowa Supreme Court Wraps Up Term with Several Notable Decisions, National Headlines

July 10, 2021

The Iowa Supreme Court wrapped up its 2020-2021 term last week – and as is typical for this Court – saved its highest profile cases for last. The Court issued several notable decisions during the month of June, many receiving national attention. Here is a recap with links to news stories for each case:

Supreme Court Sets Aside Evidence; Takes Away Hard Fought Jury Verdict
Before the court for the third time, this case pitted former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey against former Governor Terry Branstad in a precedent-setting legal battle over employment discrimination. The Supreme Court reversed Godfrey’s $1.5 million jury verdict, citing a lack of evidence that Branstad knew Chris Godfrey was gay when he tried to force him out of office. The citizen jury, of course, had unanimously decided there was enough evidence. While this decision is a monumental disappointment to Godfrey and his legal team, it does not take away from the critically important new pathways to justice that these lawyers created by bringing this case. Because of Godfrey, Iowans can now seek monetary damages from the state when their Constitutional rights are violated. Times-Republican

High Court Sinks Racoon River Lawsuit
The Raccoon River’s listing as one of the 10 most endangered waterways in the country underscores a lawsuit brought by two environmental groups against various state agencies responsible for protecting water quality in the state. The high court turned back the lawsuit, ruling that it was an issue better dealt with by lawmakers. Iowa Public Radio The 4-3 decision is a win for large scale farming operations, but a disappointment to Iowans who are concerned about pollution levels in our rivers and lakes. If you enjoy reading Supreme Court opinions (we realize it’s not for everyone), this is not one to skip. In it, the Justices writing for the majority and the minority grapple with the scope of their power as a Court.

Planned Parenthood Barred from Teaching Sex Ed
After state lawmakers barred Planned Parenthood from receiving federal grants to teach sex education in 2019, the group sued the state in district court and won … until last week when the Iowa Supreme Court reinstated the ban. Planned Parenthood taught the standard lesson plans, intended to reduce unwanted pregnancies, for several years. Capital Dispatch

“Ban the Box” Ordinance Upheld in Waterloo
In another case that drew national attention, the Supreme Court upheld part of a Waterloo ordinance that prohibits employers from asking about criminal histories on job applications. “Ban the box” proponents believe that such laws help people with criminal records find a job and successfully reenter society. The Courier

Police Need a Warrant to Search Trash
Before this June, police in Iowa could rifle through someone’s trash looking for evidence of a crime without a warrant as long as it was on the curb or alley and not on private property. No longer, said the Supreme Court in their June ruling, citing citizen expectations of privacy until garbage bags are picked up by a “licensed collector.” Quad-City Times

Team Justice Not Politics

Must-Watch TV: LIVE Interviews by State Nominating Commission of 14 Appeals Court Candidates

June 21, 2021

Your Justice Not Politics Viewer’s Guide

Iowa Court of Appeals courtroom

Block off Friday, June 25, on your calendar and stock up on your favorite caffeinated beverage (and maybe some popcorn) for a full day of live-streamed interviews with the 14 men and women vying to replace retiring Judge Richard Doyle on Iowa’s Court of Appeals.

It’s a chance to see Iowa’s widely admired merit-based judicial selection system up close and personal as members of our State Judicial Nominating Commission review the qualifications of each candidate before sending three names to the governor for a final selection. Posing the questions will be eight lawyers elected by attorney peers from throughout their Congressional District and nine members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

  • Where to watch?
    The proceedings will be held in the chambers of the Iowa Supreme Court at the Judicial Branch Building and be live-streamed on the Iowa Courts YouTube channel. If you can’t devote the 25th to Commission watching, the interviews will also be archived on the Iowa Judicial Branch website.
  • Who are the candidates?
    The list of the 14 Iowans who applied to fill the upcoming Appeals Court vacancy is available here along with the interview schedule and links to the applications and writing samples submitted by each candidate.
  • What SHOULD we see?
    The goal of a nominating commission in merit-based selection is to determine which candidates are most qualified to serve on the bench. Hence, we trust the questions will focus on the professional background, qualifications, and unique career experience of each candidate. Does the candidate have the knowledge, skills, and demeanor needed to handle the profound responsibilities that come with the job?
  • What SHOULDN’T we see?
    Something has gone terribly wrong if we witness anything on June 25th like the fireworks we’ve seen over the years during Senate confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. The primary intent of a nonpartisan nominating commission is to remove hyper-partisanship from the process. Questions from Commissioners or comments from the candidates on how they might rule specifically on hot-button issues should definitely not be part of the discussion. Nor should there be prying inquiries about a candidate’s political affiliation, religion, ethnic background, or family life.
  • How to weigh in with the Commissioners?
    Justice Not Politics has made it easy for you to comment on the qualifications of the applicants with our Appeals Court Vacancy comment form. Just click here, fill in your thoughts and hit “Take Action” – your comments will be emailed to all 17 members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission.

Sure, we sound like nerds when we say we are excited to again see merit-based selection in action. And you can bet we’ll be watching every minute of the public interviews. Because in an environment where merit-based selection is under attack here and elsewhere in the country, we intend to take full advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate how important this process is to fair courts for all Iowans.

Team Justice Not Politics,
Your Fair Courts Nerds

PS: If you really want to dive into this topic further, here is a link to The American Judicature Society (AJS) “Handbook for Judicial Nominating Commissioners,” a best-practices guide used by state commissions throughout the country.


Merit-Based Judicial Selection Is Threatened, Here and Throughout the Country

June 8, 2021

Faithful readers of our Justice at Stake series know we’ve chronicled the growing tension between dark money special interests and judicial independence. What started as a drip more than 20 years ago is now a Noah’s Ark flood of spending by mostly (but not exclusively) business and conservative groups to achieve their narrow political goals. By mounting political-style attack campaigns against judges who follow the law rather than a political or religious worldview, these groups are causing real harm to state and federal courts, as research makes so depressingly clear.

The “Gold Standard” Is Under Attack

Conceived in the early 1900s and first implemented in Missouri in 1940, merit-based judicial selection – considered the “gold standard” for selecting state supreme court justices – has been remarkably successful at bouncing politics out of judicial selection in Iowa and the 20 other states where it is used today. But times have changed and super-charged partisan politics has become the norm. While our merit-based judicial selection system is better than all known alternatives, it is not immune to partisan subversion.

In Iowa …

Many mark 2010 and a million-dollar smear campaign directed at three well-qualified Iowa Supreme Court justices for their decision on marriage equality as the opening volley in the new era of partisan attacks on judges standing for retention. Successful in hoodwinking voters in 2010, the same extremist groups were defeated in 2011, 2012, and 2016 despite new rounds of vicious and baseless political attacks.
Then in 2019, as many of you know, Gov. Kim Reynolds and conservatives in the state legislature weakened another merit-based safeguard by tipping the balance on Iowa’s statewide nominating commission in a blatant power grab.

In other merit-based states …

Numerous other narrow-minded interest groups and self-serving politicians have spearheaded similar assaults on merit-based judicial selection systems and retention elections. Recent examples include:

  • Political groups targeted three Florida Supreme Court justices in 2012 for votes on the Affordable Care Act and the death penalty.
  • Tennessee’s lieutenant governor led an effort in 2014 to unseat three justices, hurling inappropriate claims of being “soft on crime” and “anti-business.”
  • Gov. Sam Brownback exploited the retention election of two Kansas Supreme Court justices to win reelection in 2014, using tactics that were called “beyond disgraceful” by a local prosecutor. Then Brownback and his supporters tried to use a series of decisions involving public school funding to jam through a court packing plan in 2016.
  • A group calling itself Citizens for Judicial Fairness was anything but fair in spending $2.2 million this past November on TV ads attacking Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, making him the first Supreme Court justice to lose a retention election in state history.
  • This year, the Governor and Republican legislators in Montana are working overtime to eliminate that state’s 50-year-old nominating commission and hand complete control for judicial appointments to the Governor in what one observer called “reverting back to the bad old days.”

Boot politics out of our courts!

Building a Merit Selection System for the 21st Century

Iowa’s merit-based judicial selection system has taken a few direct hits as outlined above. And, scheming politicians and the special interest groups that support them will continue these campaigns for injustice as long as they still work.

Yet, our system has endured, and it will continue to do so if we adhere to the principles established in the Missouri Plan and wisely adopted by Iowa voters in 1962. To prevent any further backsliding, we should restore Iowa’s system back to the “gold standard” by reversing the Governor’s partisan control of the state-wide judicial nominating commission. Our first priority must be to make sure the selection of judges is as impervious to political pressure as possible, regardless of which party holds the Governor’s office.

But we can’t stop there. We must also consider additional measures that will safeguard Iowa’s system from future manipulation and abuse for political gain. Several prominent organizations and legal scholars have proposed added protections for merit-based selection, including a comprehensive plan from the Brennan Center for Justice. These proposals are based on minimizing the role of politics on nominating commissions while insulating retention elections from partisan manipulation.

While some of these ideas won’t make sense for Iowa, leaders from both sides of the political spectrum should think boldly about how to restore and safeguard the principles of the “gold standard” of judicial selection that Iowa voters established in 1962.

Team Justice Not Politics

Protecting the Cornerstone of Justice – Judicial Independence

May 11, 2021

Our ongoing series “Justice at Stake” started with a playbill of sorts to help you discern the intentions of those on either side of a national struggle for what the Framers of the Constitution considered central to our democracy – a fair and impartial court.

First on the stage are those we call the Foot Soldiers, groups dedicated to remaking state courts for narrow business or political interests. Next up are The Funders, those who funnel millions in dark money contributions from corporations and other wealthy special interests directly into the coffers of the Foot Soldiers to target state Supreme Court judges who won’t “toe the line” for their corporate or political agendas.

By all accounts, the Foot Soldiers and the Funders are achieving their Machiavellian goals. Today, one-third of all elected justices now on the bench have withstood at least one $1 million race. Eighty percent of judges said “Yes” when asked if they thought this spending was an effort to shape policy by swaying judicial decisions. The public agrees as well, according to a 2013 poll, when 90% of the respondents said they believe campaign cash affects how a judge rules.

“I never felt so much like a hooker down by the bus station… as I did in a judicial race,” lamented retired Ohio Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Paul Pfeifer. “Everyone interested in contributing has very specific interests. They mean to be buying a vote.”

But in this tragic drama, we’d like to think “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” thanks to a group we are calling The Heroes. These are the stalwart defenders of fair and impartial courts that, regardless of political persuasion, believe we should choose and evaluate judges based on merit and a fair-minded interpretation of the law rather than big money and partisan politics. We loosely categorize these groups as follows:

  • The Intellectuals
    These national advocacy organizations are dedicated to informing policymakers about the growing threat of money and interest groups on judicial independence. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice leads the pack with extensive research, analysis, and recommendations on how we can safeguard the courts from partisan manipulation.Other national organizations that make fair courts a central part of their mission include the Center for American Progress, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the Piper Fund (a JNP supporter), the National Center for State Courts, and the American Bar Association.
  • The Detectives
    Here we have the sleuths of judicial sovereignty, watch dogs that dig deep under the apple-pie facades common to the Foot Soldiers in search of the Funders and their patrons. Taking center stage is from the National Institute on Money in Politics, the online home for a massive database on the dark money contributors to political and judicial campaigns. The Center for Responsive Politics serves a similar role via its website
  • The Citizens Brigade
    Springing to the defense of state courts under attack by the antagonists of justice are members of the Citizens Brigade, which includes yours truly (Justice Not Politics) here in Iowa. JNP was founded in direct response to a million-dollar Foot Soldier campaign by extreme-right religious groups to oust three accomplished Supreme Court justices in the 2010 retention election. Other state-based groups in the Citizens Brigade include Kansans for Fair Courts and Justice Not Politics Alaska (no affiliation to JNP-Iowa) as well as the state chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Intermission Followed by the Final Act
The fight for fair and impartial courts started in America before it was America when the Declaration of Independence called out King George III for attacks on both the judicial branch and individual judges. Today the kings of industry and other special interests are doing the same with unprecedented spending on disinformation campaigns and attack ads against their foes while writing big checks to their allies. Next time, recommendations on how we strengthen protections, here in Iowa and throughout the nation, for what is truly the cornerstone of justice – judicial independence.

Justice Not Politics,
AKA Iowa’s Citizens Brigade

Unpretentious Minnesota courtroom is a powerful reminder of why fair courts matter

April 21, 2021

Yesterday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts in the murder of George Floyd. The convictions are neither the beginning or the end of a long story of racial struggle in the United States.

Amid the deluge of news coverage, commentary, and public discussion of this trial, it’s worth taking a minute to remind ourselves of why we continue to do our work to advance fair and impartial courts.

Every day, injustices occur. And every day, the human drama plays out in our nation’s criminal courtrooms. Judges and lawyers and jurors sort through the details of those cases. Tales of human frailty and bad decisions, stories of strength and courage – the full range of our lived experiences are on display in those courtrooms.

For the past three weeks, many Americans have watched one courtroom, and they have seen the (sometimes mind-numbingly mundane) process of justice being done. They have seen skilled lawyers making their respective cases, expert witnesses offering detailed information, witnesses offering first-hand perspectives, citizen jurors taking time from their lives to respectfully hear both sides to weigh evidence and reach an informed decision, and an experienced (and merit-selected) judge, Peter Cahill, facilitating a respectful, evenhanded, and thorough process.

This is why our state courts matter. Nearly 84 million cases were considered in state trial courts nationwide in 2018, according to the Court Statistics Project. Approximately 17 million of those were criminal cases (not including traffic cases, domestic relations cases, or juvenile justice cases). Every one of those cases involves real people. A good number of those cases involve heartbreak and sadness and loss. In every criminal case, a person’s liberty is at stake, and the decision may change their life forever. In every criminal case, a victim and their loved ones are seeking to be seen and heard and, to the extent that it is possible, to have wrongdoing recognized and punished.

And in every one of those cases, the people involved should know, unconditionally, that the court will behave with integrity, will honor the dignity and worth of each individual, and will do justice.

The justice system is not perfect. Like so many other systems, it is hard work to make it more perfect. And this is why our work is never done and more vital than ever. State courts are essential to the project of American democracy. A single unpretentious courtroom in Hennepin County, Minnesota is a powerful reminder of this.

The Team at Justice Not Politics