Monday, November 29, 2021

Join our email blast

Civic Skinny

Delay in Water Works suit is bad for Des Moines in Legislature.


Bad news for Des Moines: Federal Judge Mark Bennett’s decision last week to ask the Iowa Supreme Court to rule on some legal issues before he hears the lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works filed against three drainage districts in northern Iowa probably will mean the actual lawsuit won’t be heard until 2017 instead of this summer.

That means Des Moines shouldn’t expect very much from the Legislature this session. The suit has infuriated much of rural Iowa — the issue protecting water quality “risks tearing apart the fabric of Iowa, pitting Des Moines against rural Iowa,” Gov. Terry Branstad said in his state-of-the-state speech last week — and that fury has been made clear to legislators from outside Des Moines.

Until the issue is resolved, by agreement or by court dictate, Des Moines’ wants and needs from the Legislature aren’t going to get very far, politicians and lawmakers say. …

The law works in wondrous ways, especially if you’re a lawyer.

More than seven years ago, a federal lawsuit was filed against Wells Fargo Bank alleging the bank charged “improper, unwarranted and unreasonable property-inspection fees from borrowers who were delinquent on their mortgage payments.” Two years ago, the suit was turned into a class-action suit. A year ago, a settlement was reached, though it took months to work out the details after that agreement. In the end, Wells Fargo put $25,750,000 into an escrow account.

Prep Iowa

The suit started out in California but ultimately was moved to Judge Robert Pratt’s courtroom in Des Moines, the home of Wells Fargo Mortgage.

In all, 32 lawyers and 14 paralegals and clerks from seven firms were involved on behalf of the plaintiffs. Now, they want to get paid. Last month, they submitted court documents saying they have spent thousands of hours on the case, and they want $8,583,333 — one third of the escrowed money — for fees. They also want $252,877.30 in expenses. Most of the lawyers are from a Connecticut-based firm, but one is from Des Moines. Roxanne Conlin says she put in 78.5 hours, at $750 an hour, and she has asked the court to pay her $58,875 from the fund. She also wants expenses of $303.36. The expenses include 38 cents for telephone charges. Conlin is nothing if not detail-oriented.

It’s unclear how many people will share in the payout. The class includes more than 2.7 million potential claimants. They have been notified, and they have until March 16 to fill out a claim number. Even if only around 23,000 sign up, each will get less than Conlin is seeking for one hour’s work. If half of the people enroll — which is highly unlikely — and if the lawyers get what they are seeking, each claimant will get around $12.50.

That’s enough to buy a ticket to a movie — “The Big Short,” perhaps. …

Nate Boulton, the 35-year-old labor lawyer seeking the Iowa Senate seat of the retiring Dick Dearden, is off to a fast fundraising start for his Democratic primary race against Dearden’s daughter, Pam Conner.

Boulton reported this week he has raised $75,383 for what will be one of the costlier contests this year. Twenty-two people and political action committees have given at least $1,000 to him. The biggest giver, at $10,000: The Justice for All PAC, the political arm of the trial lawyers’ Iowa Association of Justice. The chairman of the PAC until recently: Nate Boulton.

Conner, who has long worked for Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro, has raised $21,605 so far. Her biggest contributions: $1,000 each from her dad and from Republican Jim Cownie. She also has received a $10,000 loan from her father, who has represented the heavily Democratic district in the northeast part of Des Moines and Pleasant Hill since 1995.

Though Boulton has been endorsed by 10 unions, don’t expect AFSCME to weigh in on either side: Boulton is one of its main lawyers, but AFSCME boss Danny Homan was the best man at Conner’s wedding. …

For tea-leaf readers:

Gov. Terry Branstad gave his state-of-the-state speech last week, and in it he mentioned two members of his administration. He gave a shout-out to Public Defender Adam Gregg, and five times he mentioned Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. If Branstad doesn’t run again in three years, it has long been clear he will support Reynolds. It’s even clearer now.

“The lieutenant governor and I are continuing to meet with education, agriculture and business leaders to build support for a solution that helps schools, improves water quality and protects Iowa taxpayers,” the governor said. Not mentioned in this study of agriculture and water: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. One reason, perhaps: Northey is often mentioned as a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2018. CV

Comment: Justice and Injustice 

Chief Justice Mark Cady is about as low-key a guy as you‘ll meet in this state. Watch him from the bench: His questions are insightful, but he sometimes seems almost apologetic when he interrupts a lawyer to ask them. Talk to him at a gathering: He is modest and soft-spoken. Read his opinions: They are thorough and thoughtful but never flamboyant.

He doesn’t seem the sort of fellow who would bring up the sordid underbelly of this state.

But that’s what he did Wednesday morning in his annual state-of-the-judiciary speech to legislators and others gathered in the beautiful chambers of the Iowa House of Representatives. He spoke of teenage drinkers, drug-addicted parents, racial bias and biased juries, and he spoke passionately — he actually raised his voice — about the “dark underworld” of sex trafficking of young people in Iowa.

And he talked about the court’s role not only in dealing with these issues — but in eliminating them.

There’s much reason to be proud of Iowa’s judiciary — from its rejection of slavery in 1839 to its approval of gay marriage in 2009 — but there are reasons to be concerned, too. Is the judiciary a party to the great racial imbalance in this state’s jails and prisons? Does it monitor the composition of juries to ensure fairness? Does it look at juvenile offenders with an unbiased eye? Does it work as hard to keep people out of jail as it does to put them in jail?

Those are issues that seem increasingly to bother the Chief Justice. In his five years as chief — all told, he’s been a judge for 30 years and a member of the Supreme Court for nearly 18 — he seems to have become more and more concerned about injustice in this state.

“We celebrate justice when it prevails,” Cady told the legislators last week, but also, “We fight for justice when it is absent.”

And then he outlined what the court is doing.

Juvenile justice? In 2014, he said, there were 5,392 children who avoided a criminal record by being diverted into court and community and law-enforcement programs to help them get their lives back on track. “More than 72 percent of children diverted from juvenile court as low-risk offenders did not return to court,” he said.

Racial disparity? “Last year, the judicial branch trained 716 judges, magistrates, and other judicial branch staff to recognize implicit biases that may contribute to racial disparities.”

The court will work with state and local agencies “to find ways to improve the pretrial release program” — to make sure, in other words, that it does not discriminate. The court is going to start keeping records on the racial composition of juries, and “we have started planning to modernize our jury-management software to give greater assurance that randomly selected jury pools represent a fair cross-section of each community.”

Sex trafficking? “It exists in a dark underworld in many communities across Iowa and is associated with some of Iowa’s most iconic places and events,” he said. “There is no justice when children are abused and exploited.” The court has begun educating judges and others on the issue and is trying to figure out how best to deal with it legally and compassionately. “The injustice of human trafficking has been brought to the forefront,” Cady said.

The great decisions of the Iowa Supreme Court are breath-taking. Rejecting the very idea of slavery before the Civil War, rejecting segregated schools 86 years before the nation did, handing down a “Rosa Parks” decision 78 years before Rosa Parks got on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, staunchly defending the right to opinionated journalism well before the United States Supreme Court even considered the issue, and, of course, ruling that every Iowan has the right to marry whomever he or she loves — and every church has the right not to conduct those ceremonies.

Those rulings are momentous.

But no more momentous to a black person than an assurance he will get a fair trial.

No more momentous to a troubled family than a process that keeps it together through family-treatment court.

No more momentous to a wayward juvenile than a decision to divert his case out of the court system and on to informal probation.

And no more momentous to a teenage girl or boy victimized by human sex trafficking than a court program designed to work with them, to provide the services and protection they need, and to provide safety and compassion along with justice. CV

— Michael Gartner

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Fire & Ice