Staff Columnist

A judicial revenge fantasy becomes legislation in Iowa

The Iowa State Capitol building is seen after short snow storm the day after the caucuses in Des Moines on Tuesday, Feb.
The Iowa State Capitol building is seen after short snow storm the day after the caucuses in Des Moines on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Senate Study Bill 3181 is unlikely to see much, if any, action this legislative session. Such is, generally, the fate of deep-impact bills filed on the cusp of a bill-killing funnel deadline.

But it certainly bears mention, and watching, like some far off meteorite hurtling through space. Sure, it probably won’t smash into us. But why not remain vigilant?

After all, some bills are dead. And some are just sleeping.

In this case, it’s Iowa’s court system that would endure a thorough smashing. The bill, filed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, would impose changes on our courts clearly intended to intimidate and punish judges for doing one of the judicial branch’s most important jobs — ruling on the constitutionality of legislative actions. I emailed Zaun to ask about the bill’s origins and future but received no reply as of this writing.

Under the bill, district courts and the Court of Appeals would no longer have authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by lawmakers. Only the Iowa Supreme Court would have that authority. And it would take a five-justice supermajority on the seven-member court to overturn a statute.

That supermajority’s ruling would have no effect for one year. In the meantime, the Legislature can “compel attendance of specified justices to a public hearing to discuss and debate the justification for the decision” with legislators.

During and after that hearing, lawmakers would decide whether grounds for impeaching those justices exist, maybe “for acting without authority.” But the targeted justices would be allowed to rethink and change their ruling, presumably to save their skins. Lawmakers also could invalidate a high court ruling with two-thirds majority votes in both chambers.

The bill calls all of this “a mechanism to resolve disputes ... between the courts and legislature, both of which are composed of constitutional scholars.” And it’s all justified because “The constitution of this state does not give the courts of this state the power to invalidate laws enacted by the legislature, to require the legislature to enact different laws, or publish rulings that have the same effect of new legislation.”


But in reality, this is the latest legislative eruption spawned by the fact conservatives simply can’t stand losing in court as they seek to defend indefensible actions. Courts keep getting in the way of legislators yanking fundamental rights from Iowans for political gain.

So in order to win, these “constitutional scholars” must rip up the rules. Put the state supreme court on notice that if it defies the Golden Dome of Wisdom, its justices will be called on the very fancy legislative carpet for a “hearing,” also known as a show trial.

Rarely does such a vivid, imaginative revenge fantasy make it into actual legislation.

As much as I’d like to see legislators taken to law school, we all know actual legal arguments would have no bearing in any of this, and that’s the whole point. Pull these cases into the political circus, where hollow theatrics and donors’ fat checks mean far more than quaint notions of civil rights and equal protection.

But, hey, it’s a dead bill. Or maybe it’s that far off flicker from the future, hurtling toward us. Consult the scholars.

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