DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court issued a very rare opinion in the case of a Mahaska County man: it split, and couldn’t reach a majority. The result means the case was “affirmed by operation of law.”

Thomas Ruthers Jr., was sentenced to assault causing bodily injury as part of a plea agreement after his arrest on charges of second degree sexual abuse. He entered the plea agreement, which said he would be sentenced to one year in jail. The time he already served meant he would be released after sentencing.

The timing is critical. The plea was filed at 2:57 p.m. March 19, 2012, and judgement entered at 3:40 p.m. The state filed a petition to confine Ruthers as a sexually violent predator at 1:10 p.m. and he was served later in the day. He appealed his detention, arguing he was not being held on a sexual crime when he was ordered detained. The district court disagreed.

The Iowa Court of Appeals had problems with that. It found Ruthers was not “presently confined” on a sexually violent offense as required by state law. It also found prosecutors could not go back to a non-sexual offense years later to try to prove it had a sexual component.

That decision wasn’t unanimous, either. All the appeals judges agreed prosecutors failed to meet the confinement requirement, but then-Judge David Danilson said he would have affirmed proof of a “recent overt act,” satisfying the second requirement.

The state’s high court has seven members, theoretically avoiding a tie result. But Justice Christopher McDonald did not vote. The remaining members split. Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel voted to reverse the district court’s findings. Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield and Susan Christensen voted to affirm.

Under Iowa law, the district court’s decision is affirmed when the district court and appeals court disagree and the supreme court is evenly divided. The outcome means Ruthers’ confinement was upheld.

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Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.