We didn’t have to wait long for the Supreme Court to decide its most important case of the term. Last Tuesday, the justices heard arguments over whether a second OWI offense is an “infamous crime” under the Iowa Constitution. Yesterday–one week after the oral argument–the Iowa Supreme Court ruled, by a 5-1 vote, that it’s not. That might not seem that important. It is. For starters, it means that Tony Bisignano can run for State Senate. Article II, section 5 of the Iowa Constitution says that a person who’s been convicted of an “infamous crime” can’t be an “elector” (which means they can’t run for office), and one of Bisignano’s primary opponents (Ned Chiodo) argued that a second OWI (which Bisignano has been convicted of) is an infamous crime. Five of the six sitting justices disagreed with that. (The seventh, Justice Appel, was recused.) But the case is much bigger than one Senate race. And that’s where it gets interesting. To vote you also have to be an eligible “elector,” meaning that people who’ve been convicted of an infamous crime can’t vote–at least not unless their voting rights have been restored. So the line between an infamous crime and a run-of-the-mill crime can affect everything from school boards to the presidency. (Iowa’s a swing state, after all.)
So where is the line? We don’t know yet. The justices split three ways and no opinion garnered a majority. In addition, Chief Justice Cady’s plurality opinion (that’s what they call the opinion with the most votes) doesn’t say where the line is, though it does say that the crime must at least be a felony to be infamous.
Chief Justice Cady, joined by Justices Hecht and Zager, recognized that the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 1916 (and again in 1957) that an infamous crime is one that could result in prison time. But he brushed those cases aside because the Court had “never engaged in a textual analysis of the meaning of ‘infamous crime.’” Article II, section 5 refers to convictions for infamous crimes, not the sentences, so the Chief concluded that the framers couldn’t have been referring to potential prison sentences; instead, they must have been referring to the type of crime.
But the Chief also concluded that it’s not as simple as labeling all felonies infamous and all misdemeanors not infamous, which was the Attorney General’s position. The word felony appears in other parts of the Iowa Constitution, so the Chief concluded that infamous crime can’t be synonymous with felony; it has to mean something different. Relying heavily on an Indiana Supreme Court decision, and tracking the ACLU’s amicus brief, Chief Justice Cady concluded that “the meaning of an ‘infamous crime’ under article II, section 5 looks not only at the classification”– felony vs. misdemeanor–but also on “how a voter’s conviction of that crime might compromise the integrity of our process of democratic governance through the ballot box.” The crime must at least rise to the felony level to be infamous, Chief Justice Cady concluded, but beyond that he wasn’t willing to say what kinds of felonies “compromise the integrity of our democratic governance” and which kinds of felonies don’t. That question, he said, would be left for another day because the crime at issue in this case–an OWI 2nd–is not a felony, so it doesn’t pass the first prong of his test.