Staff Columnist

Iowa Supreme Court is skeptical of DOT speed camera authority

The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

If any legislative critics of speed cameras were watching arguments before the Iowa Supreme Court Tuesday afternoon, they got a strong signal.

Still hope to ban the use of cameras, or regulate them? You’d better put the pedal to the metal.

Because justices gave the distinct impression they’re skeptical the Iowa Department of Transportation has the authority to regulate automated traffic enforcement cameras installed by Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Des Moines. The court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by the cities to toss out camera rules crafted by the DOT in 2013.

The cities’ fight is one among four camera cases the state’s highest court now has on its plate. We could get separate rulings, or a single speed camera SUPCO magnum opus.

Arguments don’t always predict how the court will rule, but the DOT had a bad day.

“Why do you suggest the statewide DOT cannot regulate ATEs,” Justice Brent Appel asked Douglas Fulton, an attorney representing the city of Muscatine.

Fulton argued the DOT has no “specific grant of authority” from the Legislature to regulate cameras. Sure, the state cites several code sections, but they paint broad-brush pictures of the DOT’s power over primary roads. The Legislature, Fulton argued, has filled the code with scores of detailed road regulations, but none directly addressing cameras.

Justices peppered Assistant Attorney General Richard Mull with questions about the DOT’s authority.

Justice David Wiggins asked “What other things does the DOT prohibit without the statutory authority to do so?” Mull didn’t have a solid answer.

Justice Edward Mansfield wondered whether the DOT could wield its broad authority to ban traditional speed traps. Mull pointed to the DOT’s authority to regulate roadway obstructions, contending speed cameras can cause motorists to brake abruptly.

“The speed trap could too, right?” Mansfield said. “People slow down, don’t they?”

“Oftentimes they do, for good reason,” Mull said.

Chief Justice Mark Cady worried the DOT is claiming “unlimited authority.” He asked for a specific statute. “What can we really sink our teeth in? Where is it?” Cady asked.

“We wouldn’t be here if there was a more specific statute,” Appel said, just before Cady’s search for meat on the DOT’s broad bones.

I’ve long argued the DOT’s regulations, requiring Cedar Rapids officials to move and remove I-380 cameras, were reasonable. But its legal case seems remarkably weak.

And that makes sense, considering how the rules came about. Gov. Terry Branstad was miffed by a camera ticket he got in Arizona, but couldn’t get a camera ban through the Legislature. So his DOT wrote restrictions. In essence, the DOT tried its hand at legislating, which paved the road to Tuesday’s skepticism fest.

“I question whether safety was the goal of the rule-making,” Appel said.

Another question is whether lawmakers will act on cameras before they adjourn, either giving the DOT authority to regulate them or banning their use. If they run out of gas, the court may not ride to the rescue.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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