The Iowa Supreme Court issued the mother of all cop-outs Thursday. And, in so doing, reinforced Gov. Terry Branstad’s draconian voter disenfranchisement of more than 50,000 Iowans. In a 4-3 decision, rendered along partisan lines, Chief Justice Mark Cady strains to avoid upsetting the apple cart, a problem created by the vagueness of “infamy” as the state Constitution’s standard for disenfranchisement. Yes, words change, Cady admits. Victorian psuedo-scientific voting bans on “idiots” and the “insane,” appearing in the original state Constitution, are long gone, he notes. And, yes, Iowa’s excessively harsh approach to voting rights disproportionately affects black communities thanks to flaws in the application of justice, Cady concedes. But, he concludes, the courts — the body designed to interpret words written by long-dead men — shouldn’t get involved in a provision that cedes access to the most important democratic right to the whims of a governor. It’s the very court that, just two years ago, redefined the outdated term, “infamy,” to exclude misdemeanor convictions that included jail time. And it’s the very court that, in its landmark 2009 ruling legalizing gay marriage, recognized the Constitution’s living, breathing status. Astonishing.
… The three dissenting judges came to similar conclusions. The “infamy” test is “anachronistic,” said Justice Brent Appel, a Vilsack appointee. Another Vilsack appointee, Justice Daryl Hecht, correctly criticized the court’s majority, all Branstad appointees, for refusing to do the job and bring clarity to the confusion over “infamy.” “Although the legislature expressed its understanding in 1994 that all felony crimes are infamous for purposes of identifying eligible voters (sic),” he wrote, “the task of interpreting the Iowa Constitution falls to this court — not the Legislature.”
It’s the courts — not legislatures or executives — that are intended to cut through political discord and offer clarity. It’s the courts that are supposed to grapple with obsolete language and modern concepts. It’s the courts that are designed to protect rank-and-file citizens from governmental assault.
And, on Thursday, Iowa Supreme Court failed on all counts.