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June 30, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court upholds state's broad felon disenfranchisement provisions

As reported in this local article, headlined "Iowa Supreme Court upholds ban on felons voting in Iowa," a divided state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Iowa's felony disenfranchisement laws. Here is how the press report on the decision starts:

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled against an expansion of voting rights for convicted criminals on Thursday, finding that all felonies are "infamous crimes" resulting in disenfranchisement under the state constitution. The 4-3 decision upholds what critics say is one of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws in the nation, and means the state will not see a significant shift in voter eligibility ahead of the 2016 election.

Iowa's top elections officer immediately cheered the ruling, while criminal justice reform advocates said they would begin exploring their options for constitutional and legislative reforms. "This ruling goes in line with 150 years of precedence and has been reaffirmed by the people of Iowa and their elected representatives on multiple occasions," Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement. Pate's office oversees elections in the state, and he was named as the defendant in the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which argued the case before the court, had sought to limit disenfranchisement to a handful of felonies directly relating to elections and governance. If the court had upheld that view, thousands of Iowans with felony convictions could have had their voting rights restored ahead of this November's presidential election. "This is no way (to) run a democracy," ACLU attorney Rita Bettis said in a statement following the decision. The group now intends to draft a constitutional amendment allowing offenders to vote after completing their sentences.

The lengthy ruling from the Supreme Court of Iowa is available at this link, and the majority opinion authored by the court's Chief Justice gets started this way:

This appeal requires us to decide if the crime of delivery of a controlled substance is an “infamous crime” under the voter disqualification provision of the Iowa Constitution. The district court held the crime is an infamous crime, and a conviction thereof disqualifies persons from voting in Iowa. Following the analysis we have used in the past to interpret provisions of our constitution, we agree and affirm the judgment of the district court.

The term “infamous crime” was generally recognized to include felony crimes at the time our constitution was adopted. This meaning has not sufficiently changed or evolved to give rise to a different meaning today. In addition, unlike some past cases when we have interpreted provisions of our constitution, the facts and evidence of this case are insufficient to justify judicial recognition of a different meaning. Constrained, as we must be, by our role in government, we conclude our constitution permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship. This conclusion is not to say the infamous-crime provision of our constitution would not accommodate a different meaning in the future. A different meaning, however, is not for us to determine in this case. A new definition will be up to the future evolution of our understanding of voter disqualification as a society, revealed through the voices of our democracy.

Among other interesting aspects of this ruling is the wide array of cites to recent legal scholarship appearing in both the majority opinion and the longest dissent. (I bring that fact up not only because it makes me pleased given how much time I give to reading and writing such scholarship, but also because it helps reinforce my belief that Judge Posner is way off base with some recent (and past) comments about the legal academy failing to work on projects of any interest and importance to the bench and the practicing bar.)

June 30, 2016 at 03:00 PM | Permalink

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