Weekly News Roundup: Senate GOP Attempts Power Grab with Supreme Court, Ballot Bills

Also: Voter ID rollout shows early evidence of potential for disenfranchisement, Iowa’s congressional delegation opposes Trump tariff plans, retired judge cops to ghost-written decisions

The Iowa Supreme Court building in Des Moines. Photo: Ctjf83/Wikimedia Commons

The Informer’s weekly news roundup, presented in partnership with KHOI community radio.

Less than a week after passing a bill that would effectively ban nearly all abortions in the state with no exceptions for rape or incest, Senate Republicans passed another bill that would prevent the Iowa Supreme Court from ruling that a law is unconstitutional unless at least five of its seven members concur. (The abortion bill plainly contradicts US Supreme Court decisions establishing that a woman has a right to an abortion until fetal viability.) All but three of the Senate’s Republican members voted for the court supermajority legislation, which narrowly passed 26-24. Independent state Sen. David Johnson, a former Republican from Ocheyedan, called the bill “a dangerous move” and “sheer madness.” In an editorial, the Cedar Rapids Gazette agreed. “In a Statehouse with a seemingly unlimited supply of bad ideas, this one is among the worst of 2018,” read the editorial, which pointed out that a supermajority law recently prevented the North Dakota Supreme Court from declaring a similarly strict abortion ban unconstitutional. (That law was ultimately struck down by a federal court, and the US Supreme Court refused to review its decision.) The only other state with a supermajority supreme court law is Nebraska.

All 29 of the Iowa Senate’s Republican members voted for a separate bill that would require the names of candidates from the party whose most recent gubernatorial candidate received the most votes to be placed first on ballots. The bill would clearly benefit Republicans, who have held the governor’s mansion since Terry Branstad’s return to office in 2011. It passed along party lines, with Democrats decrying it as a blatantly partisan power grab. State Sen. Matt McCoy, a Des Moines Democrat, said that his GOP colleagues had become “drunken with power.”

Early Signs of Trouble Emerge with New Voter ID Law

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, has begun the so-called “soft rollout” of his new voter ID law, which was passed by the state Legislature last year. Although the law doesn’t take effect until next January, Pate has instructed poll workers to ask for voters’ IDs. “Anyone who does not have the necessary ID will be asked to sign an oath verifying their identity, and will be allowed to cast a regular ballot,” the secretary of state’s website explains. (Next year, voters without state-issued photo IDs are supposed to automatically receive voter ID cards in the mail, although college students and other residents with out-of-state or outdated addresses could have trouble getting them.)

Although Pate has repeatedly claimed that the voter ID law won’t disenfranchise voters, as similar laws have in other states, early signs of trouble emerged last Tuesday during a Polk County special election for a rejected sales tax increase. Voters reported poorly trained poll workers who were unfamiliar with the oath they could sign to verify their identity, some of whom refused to let people vote without showing identification or only allowed them to after they refused to back down. At times, poll workers reportedly only allowed voters to cast provisional ballots, apparently with the mistaken belief that the new law had already taken effect — a belief shared by KCCI 8 News, which wrongly reported on at least two occasions that the law was in effect before it retracted the story when the ACLU of Iowa contacted the station with a correction.

Iowa’s Entire Congressional Delegation Opposes Trump’s Proposed Tariffs

On Thursday, President Trump announced his plan to impose sweeping tariffs on imported steel and aluminum in order to safeguard the country’s industrial base. The announcement sent the stock market into a panic — but only briefly, as fellow Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced their opposition, arguing that the tariffs could spark a trade war. On March 7, every member of Iowa’s congressional delegation — five Republicans and one Democrat — sent a letter to Trump also opposing the tariffs, saying they “could set into motion a chain of retaliatory measures, hurting Iowans from the family farm to the family-owned manufacturing plant.”

Retired Judge Reveals He Let Attorneys Ghost-Write Hundreds of His Decisions

According to a report Friday by the Des Moines Register’s Clark Kauffman, retired Plymouth County Judge Edward Jacobson recently admitted that maybe “a couple hundred” court decisions he authored were actually ghost-written by attorneys arguing the cases and that he did not always notify opposing counsel that this was happening. The revelation was sharply addressed by the counsel to Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady, who said Jacobson’s actions threatened to undermine “public confidence in our system of justice.” Other attorneys and a Drake Law professor who spoke with Kauffman also condemned the judge’s actions. Jacobson’s admission was made in a deposition last fall; he retired after 16 years on the bench last October.

Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.