Iowa lawmakers launch another attack on courts
Chief Justice Mark Cady gives the 2018 Condition of the Judiciary to the General Assembly on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 in the House Chambers at the Iowa Capitol. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
A thistle to legislative efforts to neuter the courts. First Iowa lawmakers proposed slashing the Iowa Judiciary Branch’s budget and docking the pay of chief judges for barring guns from county courthouses. Now they want to require a supermajority of Iowa Supreme Court justices to declare a law unconstitutional.
The eight-line bill, Senate File 2153, may be one of the shortest, but most far-reaching, pieces of legislation proposed this session. “No statute shall be held unconstitutional by a court of this state except by the concurrence of at least five justices of the supreme court of Iowa,” it reads. Now, a majority (four justices) is required.
The bill passed a subcommittee last week. Only two other states require a supermajority: Nebraska and North Dakota.
The only organizations registered in support of the bill are right-wing faith groups such as the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and The Family Leader, which targeted Supreme Court justices for their 2009 ruling legalizing same-sex marriages (a ruling that was unanimous, by the way).
Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette said it best: “In the present, we have a Legislature where a handful of leaders and key lawmakers craft major legislation behind closed doors and ram it through in a matter of days. A governor of the same party is unlikely to curb their excesses. This seems like a lousy time to blunt the one strong check remaining on the misguided use of legislative power.”
It is indeed a lousy time, but state lawmakers elsewhere are going even further. Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voted 5-2 to declare unconstitutional the state’s congressional maps, which were gerrymandered to favor Republicans.
In response, state Rep. Cris Dush proposed impeaching all five justices in the majority.
Let's hope Iowa lawmakers aren't inspired by such overreaching antics.
Iowa has the third worst racial disparity in its incarceration rates, according to the Sentencing Project. The road to convictions begins with an arrest, and a black person is eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person in this state, even though both groups use the drug at similar rates, a national ACLU study released in 2013 found.
Iowa needs more information on how often minorities are stopped by law enforcement and for what reasons.
Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, talks about racial profiling by law enforcement and why she believes the Iowa Legislature should enact legislation aimed at curbing the problem. Bill Petroski/The Register
A subcommittee that includes Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, voted to advance Senate Study Bill 1177. It would standardize the collection and compilation of data from state and local law enforcement stops, provide for officer training, and create a 20-member community policing advisory board.
The bill also specifies that profiling would be an unfair discriminatory practice under Iowa civil rights law. The definition of profiling includes “discriminatory pretextual stops,” defined as “when the race, color, ethnicity, religion or national origin of the person stopped was considered or relied upon or was a motivating factor in making the decision to make a racially discriminatory stop.”
As the editorial board has written before: If racial profiling is to be addressed in any meaningful way, the public first needs reliable information on the race of the people who are being stopped. We’re glad to see that the bill would have the Department of Transportation request (but not demand) people’s race, ethnicity and primary language when they apply for a driver’s license. Officers would then not have to guess a person’s race, and they would be prohibited from asking. The information will be contained only electronically, not on the face of the card.
No organizations are registered against the bill, but several law-enforcement groups are listed as undecided. Their lobbyists, however, say police understand the need to collect data and would like to discuss how to do it efficiently. Law enforcement, civil rights groups and others must work together to pass this much-needed legislation.