Iowa Supreme Court Water Works Argument: Will the Iowa Supreme Court reverse precedent through a certified question?

by Ryan Koopmans | September 13, 2016

By Ryan Koopmans

When the Des Moines Water Works attorney steps up to argue tomorrow, he’ll likely be swimming up stream–if for no other reason than the fact that the justices are not hearing a case but instead are being asked to decide a “certified question” from a federal court.  That procedural posture could dictate the outcome of the appeal. 

Normally, when the seven justices of the Iowa Supreme Court sit down to hear oral arguments, they have a case in front of them. The entire case. There has been a lawsuit filed in a state court, the state district court has entered a ruling that one party doesn’t like, and then the case goes up to the Supreme Court for its review. 

That is not the situation here.  The Des Moines Water Works filed its lawsuit against the ten drainage districts in federal (not state) court, so that is where the case sits.  The Iowa Supreme Court doesn’t hear appeals from federal district courts, of course, but federal courts can refer, or “certify,” questions of state law to a state’s highest court.  And that’s what’s happened here.  To assist him in deciding the federal lawsuit, Federal District Court Judge Mark  Bennett certified several questions to the Iowa Supreme Court, with the main one being whether the Iowa drainage districts have immunity from all lawsuits for damages.  (For more on that, see Rox’s earlier post.)

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled, on several occasions, that they do.  So if Judge Bennett were to follow those cases, he would likely have had to dismiss most of Des Moines Water Work’s claims.  But, in response to the arguments made by Water Works, Judge Bennett has essentially asked the Iowa Supreme Court whether it would like to reconsider (i.e., reverse) those precedents.  

That’s why the Water Works is swimming upstream.  Getting the Iowa Supreme Court to reverse a prior decision is always tough, but the posture in which Water Works is trying to accomplish that reversal makes it even more difficult.  

The Iowa Supreme Court has said, as recently as 2004, that it will not generally use the certified question process to reconsider precedent. And Justice Wiggins has put it more starkly than that.  His view, which is taken from another court, is that “the purpose of certification is to ascertain what the state law is, not when the state court has already said what it is, to afford a party an opportunity to persuade the court to say something else.”  

So while some justices might be open to reconsidering whether drainage districts should have immunity for all actions for damages, it may be that they’re not willing to do so under these circumstances–where they don’t have a case in front of them but instead are simply answering generic legal questions that were referred by a federal court.




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