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Guest Commentary

Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! God save Iowa and our Honorable Courts

4/6/2016

The “Oyez” cry — a French/Middle English version of “Hear Ye!” — is heard at the start of U.S. Supreme Court sessions, but it could well serve as an announcement in Iowa courts because, Lord knows, the Iowa judiciary merits and needs all the saving it can get.

By many measures, the Iowa judiciary is the one branch of our state government that we surely can be proud of these days. However, as we pollute our waterways, erode our rich soil and weaken our schools and universities, we seem intent on wasting away our judicial heritage, too.

You don’t have to be an Iowa tub-thumper to praise the Iowa judiciary. It is a fact that the Iowa Supreme Court for all — all — of the state’s 170 years has been a national judicial leader in recognizing human rights, sometimes decades before the U.S. Supreme Court acted on behalf of the rights of minorities, women and all of us.

All the more reason to feel threatened these days. So many Iowans and our elected officials have little or no interest in protecting the independence of our judicial branch of government. The demand is for the judiciary to join in the figurative lynch mobs and special interest advocates that our legislative and executive branches incite, nourish and try to put above the law.

Consider this: Legislators can vote for laws they know, or are told, are unconstitutional. Why? It’s a win/win proposition. Voting to oppress minorities or less popular points of view is what some of their most vocal constituents want. So the mob is pleased. But, not to worry, because the courts will find the law unconstitutional, so no long-term harm has been done. And next election, the legislators can campaign against “activist judges.”

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The late Chief Justice W. Ward Reynoldson, as was his nature, put it in a more thoughtful way. In conversations more than 30 years ago — when I got to know him well through administration of cameras in the courts and service on a Supreme Court committee — he would say the judiciary got so much flak because legislators ducked tough issues and left the resolution to the courts. The legislative branch was delighted to let the judiciary take the heat for protecting civil rights.

That, of course, is what led to the 2010 vote not to retain three Iowa Supreme Court justices. They were part of the 7-0 decision that an Iowa law denying marital benefits and protection to same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

Elected officials and so much of the press and the Iowa bar did not speak out forcefully on the need for an independent judiciary to check legislators and governors when they ignore or don’t understand the law. Not a peep in 2010 from the candidates for governor, Branstad and Culver, not a word from Attorney General Tom Miller. Nothing from our congressmen. And the press, for the most part, covered the retention vote not as a matter of judicial independence but as a referendum on same-sex marriage, regardless of what the Iowa Constitution said.

The U.S. Supreme Court vindicated the Iowa Supreme Court in a 2015 decision, recognizing gay marriage.

Which, of course, brings us up to date with Iowa’s U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he refuses to recognize the need for an independent judiciary and wants to hear from the mobs before considering what court nominee would defer more to them than to the Constitution.

To its credit, Iowa continues to appoint justices in a process that helps assure judicial independence, rather than having judges elected as 20 states do (seven of which elect supreme court justices in partisan elections; three in “non-partisan.”) That support of judicial independence is about all Iowa has to rely on these days.

The full “Oyez” invocation is, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give

their attention for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this honorable court.”

In Iowa, it would be good to settle for Oyez! Oyez! Oyez. God save Iowa and our honorable courts. CV

 

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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