The opening ritual was familiar as the Iowa Supreme Court came into session Wednesday evening. The setting was not.
Wednesday’s session was at St. John Auditorium at Indian Hills Community College, part of an ongoing effort to bring proceedings to areas outside the court building in Des Moines. It began in 2011, the year after voters rejected retention for three justices.
The vote was largely tied to a single opinion: Varnum v. Brien. The ruling held that the law banning gay marriage in Iowa was contrary to the Iowa Constitution, thus invalid. It paved the way for same-sex marriage to be legalized in the state.
The opinion was written by Mark Cady for a unanimous court. He wasn’t up for retention in the next vote but, in no small irony, the author of the most controversial opinion in recent court history became chief justice as a result of the retention vote.
A turning point
Cady admitted during an interview earlier in the day that the results rattled the state’s legal community. Justices and their staffs are focused, he said. That can lead to a gap between how the court sees its relationship with the public and how the public sees it. Getting out of Des Moines is an attempt to get both parties back on the same page, something Cady believes is of “critical importance.”
“We may have stumbled onto it through the retention process, but I think we may have discovered something that we should have been doing for a long time,” he said.
Local courts have become involved in outreach as well. One of the more notable efforts began in Ottumwa, with the district court’s judges composing short essays on the legal system and intricacies under the title “Court Calls” for publication in the Ottumwa Courier. The columns are part of what led Cady to call the district one of the state’s leaders in public outreach.
The big question, of course, is whether the outreach is working. Cady thinks it is.
“We have met thousands of Iowans. We have talked at 40 or more high schools,” he said. “I can’t help but sense we’re making an impact.”
Court is in session
A few hours later Cady was clad in his ceremonial robe, seated along with six fellow justices as they heard a pair of cases. One was a fight over a woman’s insurance benefits after a man incinerated himself, burning the family home (click here for details). It hinged on whether code changes after a similar case bar the claim. The second was an appeal of convictions in a drug case, centered on whether a warrantless search of a parolee’s property provided sufficient evidence for conviction (click here for details).
It didn’t take long before the justices started peppering attorneys with questions. A similar insurance case led the Legislature to change Iowa law, Justice David Wiggins said. Why is this case still an exception? Justice Thomas Waterman pointed to the change and asked about legislative intent.
Joseph Creen, the appellant’s attorney, said no legislative change can be construed to deprive his client of her benefits. The law bans benefits to the person who committed the act, not innocents, he said.
“Insurance is to protect against accidents. This was an intentional act,” Waterman objected.
Justice Edward Mansfield asked about the impacts of the court’s ruling, speculating on whether a favorable ruling might open the door for people to burn their homes and later claim mental problems require them to be paid.
Pointed questions don’t necessarily indicate a leaning for the court. Ted Wallace, the attorney for American Family Insurance, was barely three sentences into his arguments before justices began interrupting.
As Wallace advanced his arguments, the focus turned to the Iowa Legislature. Wiggins said legislative changes often refer to specific cases when they are in response to rulings. This change had no such notation.
Wallace stuck to his stance that the Iowa Code changes apply. The fire was set with clear intent and, while the case may have been a suicide, it was a clear violation of the terms of the insurance policy.
“The facts still say that he knew what he was doing and there was an intent,” he said.
Christopher Kemp, the attorney for the appellant in the drug case, argued that an anonymous tip cannot be grounds for a warrantless search. He said that principle is absolute, even for a parolee who has signed an agreement allowing searches of person and property.
Kemp spoke less than 10 seconds before justices began questioning him. Mansfield asked to clarify the issue for the appeal. The woman was technically still serving her sentence, Waterman said. Justice Brent Appel pointed to an Illinois Supreme Court decision in a case he called almost identical. The court in that case concluded parole search agreements pass constitutional muster.
Kemp responded that, while the agreements allowing warrantless searches may not coerce people into abandoning rights, the prospect of release from prison is “certainly a motivating factor” for parolees.
Appel asked Assistant Attorney General Richard Bennett whether the state creates a “Catch-22” for parolees. If you grant permission for a search, you are searched. If you reject an informal request for a search, he said, officers grow suspicious and you get targeted for a search.
Bennett said the behavior of the people in the home went beyond the tip. They were evasive, he said, raising suspicions by their own actions as directly observed by officers.
Neither case argued Wednesday will have a resolution for weeks, if not months. The justices will discuss, debate and dissect the arguments before issuing an opinion. But first, justices had a reception to attend.
Efforts to interact with the public will continue. During the afternoon interview, Cady said the public holds the keys to solving many of the judicial system’s challenges. That makes it important to pull back the curtain and expose the court’s operations to the public.
“We certainly have our challenges, and they are many,” he said. “Our challenges will only be overcome when we can show who we really are.”