ALBIA — Arguments were heard Friday in a case that has pitted Monroe County against one of its citizens over the question of whether guns can be prohibited in the county's courthouse.
Monroe County filed a lawsuit against a county resident, JD Thompson, and the Iowa Firearms Coalition over the question.
Monroe County Attorney John Pabst said the lawsuit was filed against Thompson because he was the one who questioned the county's policy against firearm possession in the courthouse. When Thompson argued to the county their prohibition violated Iowa law, he used materials from the Iowa Firearms Coalition.
Pabst says the county is simply wanting direction from the courts to definitively settle the issue.
"The issue is who controls the joint-use areas in this courthouse," Pabst argued to Judge Joel Yates on Friday.
A 2020 law prohibits counties from banning firearms in non-court occupied spaces unless they provide armed security and screen visitors with metal detectors. There are three levels of the Monroe County Courthouse, and each contains a court space of some kind. Pabst says an order by the late Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady prohibits guns inside joint-use areas of courthouses, as well as courtrooms and court offices.
Yates quickly interrupted, seeming perplexed as to why the county was suing one of its own citizens.
"I'm trying to figure out how we get from that question," Yates said, "... to you bringing a lawsuit against a single individual in Monroe County who's not part of the Legislature, has nothing to do with Justice Cady's order — that's my first thought that comes to mind."
The point was at the front of the arguments of Alan Ostergren, an attorney who represents both Thompson and the coalition. He argued since the county sued a single citizen, judgment in their favor would only apply to Thompson, and any other citizen could re-litigate the issue for themselves.
"The county seeking a declaratory judgment against one of its own citizens is simply not what governments do to test the legality of any issue like this," Ostergren said. "The court has identified the irregularity with the idea of the government suing one of its citizens because he asked the government to follow the law."
Ostergren also argued that the two orders entered by Cady in 2017 do not require the county to prohibit firearms in all areas of the courthouse. The first order in June that year prohibited firearms in courtrooms, court spaces and adjacent spaces in court-occupied buildings. Ostergren said it was modified in December to give chief judges of a court district the ability to modify or vacate the order as needed for individual circumstances in consultation with county boards of supervisors.
"There's a very important distinction here that neither order purports to tell Monroe County, 'You have to do something,'" Ostergren said.
He further argued that the Legislature in the 2020 law established the courts only have authority to prohibit guns in spaces they occupy.
Pabst says if Yates ruled in Thompson's favor, the county would promptly remove the signs prohibiting firearms from the courthouse. Thompson's attorneys asked the judge to toss the county's claims and rule that their prohibition is illegal.
Ostergren said the remaining counterclaims from Thompson would still need to be litigated. Those claims include that the county illegally released the fact that Thompson is a firearm owner with valid permits, and claiming unlawful retaliation by the county for constitutionally protected rights.
Yates will issue a ruling at a later time.