ALBIA — Monroe County is asking the courts for clarity on whether firearms can be prohibited in the courthouse, saying a law passed last year by the state clashes with previous rulings.

Last month, the county supervisors, in response to a letter from the Iowa Firearms Coalition and JD Thompson, of Albia, questioning the legality of the prohibition of firearms in the courthouse under the new law, voted unanimously to file a declaratory suit naming the coalition and Thompson as defendants as a means to seek clarity on the issue.

“That’s a good question, and there is a valid point. The Legislature is telling us one thing and the Supreme Court another thing,” Monroe County Attorney John Pabst said. “Their position is that the only place firearms can be banning is in courtroom areas.” He described the Monroe County Courthouse as a joint-use three-story building with different court functions on each floor.

The letter and the suit center on House File 2502, which was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds last year. The law confined the firearm prohibition to areas of the courthouse used for judicial branch functions.

The county is saying the new law is in conflict with a 2017 Iowa Supreme Court decision that upheld that the weapons prohibitions order placed into effect that year “shall remain in effect for every courthouse in Iowa.”

“I told [the board] consistently all throughout this that I could not ethically advise them to ignore an order of the Iowa Supreme Court,” Pabst said.

The suit also questions whether the new law results in an unfunded mandate from the state. HF2502 says that when firearms are prohibited, counties would need to screen people for firearms and other weaves and provide armed security in the building. The county estimates that the cost for providing those services would be at least $300,000 per year with no funds provided from the state.

That’s what led the county to reference Chapter 25B of the Iowa Code, which says that if funds from new mandates are not provided by the state, parties such as Monroe County would not be responsible for fines or penalties for not complying.

“All we’re asking of the court is to tell us whether to follow Justice Mark Cady’s filing or the house file,” Pabst said. “That’s all we wanted to do.”

He compared it to a kid being told one thing by their mom and another by their dad and getting together to clear the fire. “That’s the whole bottom line of the suit.”

While Thompson and the IFC are listed as defendants in the filing, the county’s big question for the courts is whether they should follow the Iowa Supreme Court ruling or HF2502. “No personal judgement is sought against Mr. Thompson,” reads the county’s filing.

Pabst said the reason they were listed as the defendants is that the IFC wrote the letters stating their position and it was brought to the board by Thompson. “We’re not wanting anything from them. [Thompson] was just the person who brought it to our attention, and you have to name somebody,” Pabst said. “He felt affected by this, obviously.”

However, Thompson and the IFC recently filed a countersuit naming the county and the members of the board of supervisors — Dennis Amoss, John Hughes and Michael Beary — as third-party defendants. Auditor Amanda Harlan and Sheriff Daniel Johnson are also listed as third-party defendants.

The countersuit claims the signage banning firearms at the courthouse does not differentiate between areas of the courthouse devoted to the judicial branch from other areas of county business, claiming the Supreme Court decision is only applicable to court areas. It also singles out the Board of Supervisors and the auditor, saying the signs “reflect the policy of Monroe County as determined by its board of supervisors and its auditor.”

The countersuit asks for the courts to find that the firearm ban is prevented by the Iowa code and therefore should be revoked and all signage removed. It also asks for all third-party defendants to pay damages, attorney fees and court costs.

It goes further, also seeking $2,500 each from the county, Hughes, Beary, Amoss and Johnson on top of repayment of attorney fees. This request stems from a claim of the release of confidential information. In the original suit filed by the county, Thompson was identified as a firearm owner with valid permits issued by the Monroe County Sheriff. They allege that’s confidential information they believe was supplied by the sheriff without Thompson’s consent. By including it in the filing, they allege supervisors participated in that violation.

Attorneys for IFC and Thompson claims the county and its supervisors retaliated against Thompson for exercising his rights in seeking to “engage in a dialogue about the requirements of Iowa law,” as well as for writing a letter to the editor on the issue that was published in the Albia newspaper.

For this, they are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the county and the individual supervisors, that they be prohibited from further retaliatory acts, and that they pay attorney fees and court costs. It also asks for all third-party candidates be found liable for damages and that the county pay for the court costs of Thompson and the IFC.

The countersuit also demands a jury trial on all claims.

Pabst is not representing the county in the countersuit and had no comment on it.

A trial scheduling conference, to be held by phone, is set for 9:20 a.m. April 20.

“All I want is an answer,” Pabst said. “I’ve owned firearms my whole life. All I want is for somebody to tell me and my county what to do.”

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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