A split Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling Tuesday that allows a Des Moines man to run for state Senate and affirms that second-offense drunken driving is not an infamous crime as defined by the Iowa Constitution. The opinion reverses the long-standing approach that a crime carrying a prison sentence is an infamous crime. Instead of taking the next step in drawing a clear definition, the court in a 5-1 ruling said it need not precisely define infamous crime now. The court did say however, that it would “be prudent for us to develop a more precise test that distinguishes between felony crimes and infamous crimes” in a future case. The case arose from a Democratic primary battle between Anthony Bisignano and Ned Chiodo, both former lawmakers, who are seeking the Des Moines-area Senate seat Jack Hatch is vacating to run for governor. Chiodo challenged Bisignano’s candidacy on the theory that since Bisignano has been convicted of second-offense drunken driving, an aggravated misdemeanor in Iowa, he should be disqualified from running for office or voting. At issue was whether an aggravated misdemeanor falls under the Iowa Constitution’s definition of an infamous crime, which would mean Bisignano cannot vote or hold public office.
Chiodo’s attorney, Gary Dickey, based his argument on a constitutional article that says a person convicted of an infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.
The problem is the Iowa Constitution doesn’t define infamous crime, and courts over the last 100 years have construed it to mean anything resulting in a prison sentence. The Legislature revised the criminal code in the 1970s, requiring prison time in some circumstances for individuals convicted of aggravated misdemeanors. Bisignano did not serve prison time. He was sentenced to seven days in jail and probation.
A ruling favoring Chiodo could have meant an estimated 35,000 Iowa residents convicted of aggravated misdemeanors would have been disqualified from voting.