Chiodo v. Bisignano: What happens now?

by Ryan Koopmans | April 16, 2014

By Ryan Koopmans

The debate over the meaning and effect of yesterday’s Iowa Supreme Court’s decision on “infamous crimes” has begun.  This story by Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley gives a taste.

The  confusion is the result of the three-way split on the Court:

(1) Chief Justice Cady, joined by Justices Hecht and Zager ruled that a crime is not infamous unless it’s a felony that “would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance.”

(2) Justice Mansfield, joined by Justice Waterman, ruled that all felonies, but no misdemeanors, are infamous crimes.

(3) Justice Wiggins ruled that all crimes that carry a potential prison sentence are infamous–which means that all felonies and aggravated misdemeanors are infamous crimes.

The result of that split means three things.  First, because no opinion received a majority of the vote, none of the legal tests are “the law” in the sense that they bind lower courts and the State of Iowa.  Second, because five justices ruled that misdemeanors aren’t infamous crimes, that is now the law. Third, it’s up in the air whether all felonies are infamous crimes or whether that phrase is limited to felonies that “would tend to undermine the process of democratic governance.”   And unless one of the justices changes his mind or Justice Appel joins in on the next case, that issue might be up in the air for a while.

Here’s an unlikely but possible scenario that illustrates the point.  If tomorrow a plaintiff asks the Polk County district court to declare that his OWI 3rd conviction  isn’t an infamous crime (even though it’s a felony), the judge could rule in his favor.  Or the judge could rule against him. The Chiodo decision doesn’t dictate the result because the Court split 3-3 on whether all felonies are infamous crimes.

If the judge rules for the OWI convict and the State appeals to the Iowa Supreme Court, the case would likely end in a tie if Justice Appel is still recused. Assuming that Chief Justice Cady and Justices Hecht and Zager agree that an OWI 3rd doesn’t undermine the democratic process, then those three justices would vote to affirm.  But Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Wiggins would vote to reverse, assuming they stick with their current positions.  Mansfield and Waterman would conclude that an OWI 3rd is an infamous crime because it’s a felony.  And Justice Wiggins would reach the same result because the crime is punishable by prison time.  Since the vote would be tied–3 to affirm, 3 to reverse–the district court decision would automatically be affirmed and the convict would be free to vote, assuming no other impediments. It doesn’t matter that Justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Wiggins come to the same conclusion for different reasons; it just matters that all three vote to reverse.

Because the Supreme Court would remain evenly split, the issue would still be open.  A Scott County judge could come to the opposite conclusion the  next day.  And when that case went up to the Supreme Court, the justices would, again, split 3-3, meaning that the district court judge’s decision  would be affirmed by operation of law and the Scott County resident wouldn’t be able to vote.  Yet the Polk County resident would.

That’s a lot of ifs. And, again, it’s unlikely to happen.  But it does demonstrate what the Iowa Supreme Court didn’t decide yesterday.  And it shows what could remain undecided until Justice Appel weighs in.

[Note: this post was edited for clarity]





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