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Civic Skinny

Iowa Republicans voted against courthouse for Des Moines.

1/6/2016

Two days before Christmas, The Des Moines Register reported that almost a week earlier — it takes a while for news to get from Washington to Des Moines — Congress had approved and President Barack Obama had signed a bill that includes plans to build a new federal courthouse in downtown Des Moines. That’s big news.

The also-big-news it didn’t note was that both Iowa senators and three of the four Congressmen — the three Republicans — voted against the bill. The bill, which provides $1.1 trillion in government funding for the current fiscal year, was not a partisan bill. It passed the Senate 65 to 33, with 26 Republicans voting in favor, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It passed the House 316 to 113, with 150 Republicans and 166 Democrats voting for it; those in favor included Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. President Barack Obama immediately signed the bill.

The “no” vote by first-term Third District Congressman David Young is particularly surprising, since the courthouse will be in his district — a huge construction project that will last years and provide hundreds of jobs. While the bill does not put a dollar amount on the Des Moines project, new courthouses generally cost $150 million to $200 million. Whoever runs against him this fall surely will emphasize this.

For the record, the other “no” votes were cast by Congressmen Steve King and Rod Blum and Senators Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst. Democrat Dave Loebsack of eastern Iowa cast the only “yes” vote from the state. …

It apparently takes even longer for news to get from county and federal courthouses downtown to the Register newsroom a few blocks away. Or perhaps it’s news the newspaper doesn’t want to print.

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At any rate, on Nov. 4, former Register reporter Victor Epstein sued the newspaper and its parent, Gannett Co., saying the newspaper refused to pay him for the overtime hours he put in and then retaliated against him for complaining about it. He based his claim on state law. On Dec. 7, the newspaper had the suit removed to federal court, and on Dec. 14 Epstein filed an amended complaint in federal court restating his case and seeking to turn it into a class-action suit to include as plaintiffs “those similarly situated…current and former employees” of the Register and Gannett.

On Dec. 31, the Register and Gannett moved to dismiss the suit. First, they said, Epstein’s claims duplicate claims he filed earlier with a federal agency and thus are not litigable. And the Register says Epstein’s claim of wrongful discharge fails because he was an at-will employee and his discharge did not violate any public policy of the state.

Epstein was a business reporter at the newspaper from June of 2012 until Oct. 31, 2014, when he was fired after a restructuring of the newsroom. Six months later, his lawsuit notes, he won first place for business feature writing in the Great Plains Journalism Awards for the third straight year. …

Don’t be surprised if the city and Principal announce that Principal will build and operate the parking lot planned for Grand Avenue, west of 7th Street. The city is tearing down the aging structure that spanned 7th, and it planned a ramp and high-rise development there. But Principal, which is restoring its headquarters on High Street, worried that the ramp and building atop it could ruin the sight lines from the High Street building, so it and the city are near agreement on a deal that would save the city a lot of money, keep the sight lines for Principal, and allow the high-rise to be moved — probably a half a block to the east.

Bankers Trust is expected to make a deal to take a floor or so of the parking ramp for its employes.

The announcement could come any day. The council is being told about it at a workshop Monday morning. CV

Comment: Freedom’s scorecard

How did freedom fare last year in Iowa?

Pretty well — unless you were on the campuses in Iowa City or Ames.

Let’s start with this: The statistics for gay weddings for 2015 won’t be known for several months, but probably 1,000 to 2,000 gay couples were married in the state last year.

Since the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2009 that the Iowa Constitution guarantees persons the right to marry whomever they choose, gay marriages have become routine in the state. Through 2014, at least 11,136 gay couples were married in Iowa. “At least,” because persons don’t need to list their sex on marriage-license applications. The 11,136 includes only those marriages where both parties indicated their sex.

The weddings don’t seem to have provoked the wrath of man or God. Indeed, Iowans have discovered that gay married couples are like every other married couple — folks who worry about taxes and jobs and schools and faulty furnaces and leaky roofs and crabgrass and potholes, as well as folks who argue politics and religion and sports.  And who argue with each other: In the three years the state has kept records, 130 same-sex couples have been divorced.

The Iowa Supreme Court last year also guaranteed equal rights for women who want an abortion but don’t live near a clinic or doctor that will dispense abortion-inducing pills. Abortion is legal in Iowa, and so is telemedicine — the practice of medicine by way of a video-telephone hookup.

In 2010, the Iowa Board of Medicine approved telemedicine abortions, where a doctor would prescribe an abortion-inducing pill to a woman over the video hookup. But after Terry Branstad took office in 2011, he packed the board with abortion foes — including a Roman Catholic priest — and it then outlawed the abortions. Planned Parenthood sued, and the court said the new rule placed an undue burden on the women seeking the abortions, since both abortion and telemedicine are legal in Iowa. The ruling was unanimous, including two justices newly appointed by Branstad.

The court also seemed to move toward eventually ruling that it violates the Iowa Constitution to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It sent one case back to a lower court for reconsideration, and it heard arguments in a second case that clearly troubled at least some Justices. Wouldn’t it be better to let the Parole Board decide such issues years into the future, Justice David Wiggins asked lawyers in the second case. “For us to guess now as to what’s going to happen” to the young murderer’s progress or lack of it in prison “seems to me a little Draconian.” And he noted the possibility of parole doesn’t mean the granting of parole decades in the future. “If he’s not rehabilitated…he’ll die in jail.”

It’s foolhardy to predict court decisions in advance. Still. …

In 2015, too, the state dropped its efforts to purge voting lists — part of then-Secretary of State Matt Schultz’s effort to find voter fraud where none existed. In 2014, a lower court barred Schultz’s plan, and the state appealed. But last year, the state dropped its appeal.

Late in the year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released 6,000 inmates under new guidelines replacing the extraordinarily harsh drug-dealing sentences of the past. Of those, 145 are Iowans. And in December, President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Iowan Gloria James, who in 2004 had been sentenced to 188 months in prison for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

In an important press care, Judge Robert Hutchison of the Polk County District Court affirmed the right of the Register to resist subpoenas in the Nancy Sebring lawsuit because the information sought wasn’t necessary or critical to her claims. (But bad for freedom: Ultimately, the insurance company for the school district paid off Sebring in a case the district likely would have won.)

The Iowa Public Information Board again proved to be just another bureaucracy in 2015, sort of a time-consuming way station on the path to the courts. Notably, the staff twice recommended dismissal of complaints regarding government refusals to release recordings of the events surrounding the police shooting of Autumn Steele in Burlington. In December, in a 4-3 vote the board overruled a staff recommendation to dismiss complaints against the Burlington police department, which views the body-camera and dash-cam as secret information. The case will end up in court.

The two largest state campuses were anything but forums for robust debate. At Iowa State, where — unbelievably — there are two “free speech zones,” the student government tabled a proposal to increase the number to three. The campus has a long history of muzzling dissent. In the 1990s, a university official said, “What would you do it you were teaching and students outside the building were making noise demonstrating?” His answer: Muzzle the students. The right answer, of course, is close the windows.

Iowa State continues to defend its decision to stop the student chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws from using the university logo on its T-shirts — though other student organizations haven’t had such difficulty — and the dispute is now in federal court.  The university last year also continued to try to impose its own judgment on the behavior of former basketball player Bubu Palo even though every court that heard the issue of whether he raped a fellow student sided with the basketball player. Ultimately, the case was dropped.

As for the University of Iowa, last spring the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education listed it as one of the top 10 colleges where free speech is threatened on campus. There was nothing that happened in 2015 to think things got any better. CV

— Michael Gartner

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