Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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Civic Skinny

U of Iowa hires $895-an-hour lawyers. Culver to the Y? A little lesson for Branstad. And some real-estate deals. 




Your tax dollars — or your medical dollars or tuition dollars or philanthropy dollars or something — at work:

The University of Iowa is about to hire McDermott, Will & Emery, a Chicago law firm, to “assist and advise” it in response to a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General. The subpoena “relates to the health-care operations of UI Health Care,” according to a document sent to the Executive Council from Solicitor General Jeff Thompson.

According to the memo, the Chicago lawyers will be paid up to $895 an hour. “Payment for these services will be made directly by the University of Iowa,” the memo says.

Prep Iowa

Put another way: The yearly tuition paid to the university by an in-state undergraduate will go to a Chicago lawyer for 10 hours of work. …

The word — from four folks associated with the YMCA — is that Chet Culver will soon be joining the organization as the No. 2 executive, charged with helping raise the millions of dollars still needed to finish the pool at the downtown Y. Culver didn’t confirm or deny it. The Y recently hired West Des Moines Chamber boss Dave Schwartz as chief executive to succeed Vernon Delpesce, who resigned or was fired a few months ago because of the financial mess at the organization. …

It was little noticed, but Gov. Terry Branstad the other day signed a bill allocating $6,718,443 (who knows how they come up with such figures) for furniture and equipment for the courts and offices that are being put into the redone J.C. Penney building downtown. The money can be spent over the next three years. …

So Gov. Branstad has proclaimed that all Iowans should join the “Iowa 99 County Bible Reading Marathon” from June 30 through July 3. We should gather “in front of all 99 courthouses,” he has proclaimed, and that prompted a guy who knows his way around the state to wonder which courthouse we should shun.

For there are, as this fellow notes, 100 courthouses in the state’s 99 counties — with Lee County housing two, in Keokuk and Fort Madison. And there used to be 101, he notes, until the East Pottawattamie Courthouse in Avoca got demoted.

Meantime, puzzle over this sentence: “Whereas, the Bible is recognized as the one true revelation from God, showing the way of Salvation, Truth, and Life, and enriching the daily lives of millions of men and women who through the ages of the Bible was removed from our schools; and….”

The proclamation does not say anything about the separation of church and state. …

Only one home in Polk County has sold for more than $1 million in the past four months, according to records in the Polk County Assessor’s office. Last month, Jakob and Natalie Johnson paid $1,560,000 to David Robbins for a 4,800-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bathroom, three-fireplace home at 1316 Burr Oaks Drive in the Glen Oaks section of West Des Moines. The house was built in 2010 and is assessed at about $1.2 million.

Sales of condominium apartments downtown are picking up. In the first five months of the year, 19 units were sold — including four at the Plaza at Third and Walnut streets and four at the Brown-Camp Lofts at Market and Water. Prices ranged from $122,500 for a 536-square-foot, first-floor unit at the Whiteline Lofts to $470,000 for a 1,900-square-foot unit on the 25th floor of the Plaza. Prices also seem to be rising. A unit in the Liberty Building that sold for $331,000 two years ago just resold for $425,000. The Whiteline unit that sold for $122,500 changed hands for $93,000 two years ago. CV


Comment: Our liberties we prize…

The Iowa Constitution is the single most important document that sets out those liberties we fight to prize and those rights we strive to maintain as Iowans.

And again the other day a majority of the Iowa Supreme Court cited the Iowa Constitution — not the United States Constitution — in preserving those liberties and maintaining those rights even for young murderers. It ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment.

Even if that juvenile killed his grandparents.

Isaiah Sweet was 17 on May 11, 2012, when he shot his grandparents to death in the home where they were raising him in Manchester. He then went to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, where he partied for the next two days.

There was never any doubt that he killed them in cold blood, and ultimately he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. District Judge Michael Shubatt sentenced Sweet to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That was a popular decision. But a wrong one.

As more research is produced about the immaturity of the brains of juveniles — evidence that brains aren’t fully developed until a person is 25 or so — courts nationwide have been moving away from sentencing young people to life in prison without ever having a chance at parole.

The United States Supreme Court has barred such sentences except in the rarest of circumstances, and Iowa had been moving toward a categorical banning of them. But Judge Shubatt ruled that the murders by Sweet were too outrageous even to consider the possibility of parole decades from now.

Yet, how could he know what Isaiah Sweet will be like when he is 60 years old? Scientists don’t know. Psychiatrists don’t know. Moms and dads and brothers and sisters don’t know. Neither do judges. No persons know how Sweet’s brain will develop; they just know it isn’t developed yet.

After losing, Sweet’s public defenders went to the Iowa Supreme Court and argued that such sentences should be categorically banned, noting the Iowa Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment. Last month, four of the seven justices agreed.

It was, for Iowa, a great decision. For blending science with the law, it guaranteed a future right to a probation hearing — not, the court emphasized time and again, a right to probation — to persons who commit crimes while still lacking in mature judgment. It provides hope — hope that is 30 or 40 years away, perhaps — to persons who commit even abominable crimes when young.

The troubling part of the decision was the dissent — not the position of the three justices, but their reasoning. The justices, Ed Mansfield and Tom Waterman and Bruce Zager, twice noted that the Iowa Legislature had authorized such sentences. “More is needed before we strike down a legislatively authorized sentence — especially one the general assembly reauthorized by large majorities in both houses just last year.”

But that’s not the point. While legislative intent is important, it is trumped by the Iowa Constitution.

“While we strive to uphold the constitutionality of a statute when possible, we do not follow this approach by lowering our expectations for justice or accepting the imperfections we discover as an inevitable part of justice,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote in a concurring opinion. “We must embrace each discovery in each step as an opportunity to bring our laws closer to our constitutional values, not find ways to avoid doing so.”


Gut reaction would tell you that Judge Shabatt was right. But logic and science — and the Iowa Constitution — tell you that he was wrong.

  • • •

There seems to be no love lost among some of the justices on the court, and the irritation — maybe that’s too soft a word — with one another popped up in the opinions in the Sweet case the other day.

Justice Brent Appel took 55 pages to lay out the majority’s reasoning, and that was noted — in a not-so-veiled shot — by Justice Ed Mansfield in his 17-page dissent. He criticizes a chunk of Appel’s analysis “despite the length of [his] opinion.”

Justice David Wiggins then took a shot at Mansfield in a one-page concurrence. “The dissent contends our decision today means the parole board will release every juvenile from prison at some point in the future,” Wiggins wrote. “That contention is nothing more than fearmongering.” CV

— Michael Gartner




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