Staff Editorial

Supreme Court supermajority bill should be scrapped

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)
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)

On Tuesday, the Iowa Senate voted 26-24 in favor of legislation, Senate File 2282, requiring a supermajority of five Iowa Supreme Court Justices to declare a law unconstitutional.

Republican backers of the bill, approved by a single vote, don’t like the idea of a simple 4-3 court majority overturning statutes approved by the Legislature. Nineteen Democrats, three Republicans and the Senate’s lone independent voted no.

“You’re really taking a dangerous move here,” said Sen. David Johnson, I-Ocheyedan. “This is sheer madness to be changing our court system.”

We wholeheartedly agree. In a Statehouse with a seemingly unlimited supply of bad ideas, this one is among the worst of 2018.

In Iowa, we have a court system that functions well and can render final decisions when critical constitutional questions arise. Under the Senate bill, a three-justice minority could block those rulings and leave Iowans stuck in frustrating legal limbo.

That’s what has happened in Nebraska, where a five-justice supermajority is required. For example, a key ruling there on legislation affecting the routing of the controversial Keystone pipeline was blocked by three justices, denying the state and nation a majority verdict on its constitutionality.

In North Dakota, a majority ruling on clearly unconstitutional abortion restrictions was blocked by two of five justices. North Dakota also requires a supermajority.


The Senate’s misguided bill also comes at a moment when we’ve lost considerable faith in the Legislature’s ability to thoughtfully and fully consider the implications of legislation. Again and again, major bills affecting scores of Iowans have been crafted behind closed doors and rushed toward passage with little regard for public concerns. Just this week, a GOP committee chairman tried to block public access to a committee meeting on so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation.

Our courts now stand as the last defense for Iowans shut out of the legislative process and harmed by its actions. The Senate bill actually increases the chances unconstitutional laws will be allowed to stand.

It’s yet another political shot at our courts, fired by the usual suspects. Groups backing the change are among the same ones that campaigned to toss justices off the Supreme Court as retribution for a unanimous 2009 decision overturning a ban on same-sex marriages. Clearly, based on that track record, backers’ true intent is to hobble, not improve, the court.

The House should swiftly toss this bill on the scrap heap, where it belongs.

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