UPDATES & ANALYSIS

4.15

In Emergency Opinion, Iowa Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Abby Finkenauer’s U.S. Senate Nominating Petition

by Matt McGuire | April 15, 2022

Former Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate from Iowa for the 2022 general election. She submitted her nominating petition with the Iowa Secretary of State on March 10, 2022. Two private citizens filed objections to the petition, asserting defects with the petition, including that the petition lacked the required number of valid signatures from the required number of counties. One of the asserted defects was that signatures lacked dates or bore incorrect dates.

On March 29, a State Objections Panel, consisting of the Iowa Secretary of State, Iowa State Auditor, and Iowa Attorney General held a hearing on the objections to Finkenauer’s petition. The Panel upheld a number of objections but overruled the objections relating to three missing or incorrect dates. Had these objections been sustained, Finkenauer’s petition would have been invalid and she would not have appeared on the June 7 Democratic primary ballot.

In the evening on Sunday, April 10, the Polk County District Court, ruling on a petition for judicial review of the Panel’s decision, found that the three undated or improperly dated signatures should have not been counted. The Iowa Supreme Court granted expedited consideration of the appeal of the district court’s ruling and issued an unsigned per curiam ruling five days later, on Friday, April 15, in Schmett v. State Objections Panel.

The Iowa Supreme Court held that the Panel correctly overruled the objections relating to the three undated or incorrectly dated signatures. The Court noted an apparent conflict between two provisions in the Iowa Code, Section 43.14(2)(c), which states that a signature “shall not be counted” if the line lacks certain information, such as a full residential address, but not including issues with the date within this list of deficiencies, on one hand, and on the other hand, Section 43.15(2), which states that “[e]ach signer shall add . . . the date of signing” (emphasis added).

The Court ruled a recent 2021 amendment to the election laws included within the Iowa Code controlled the analysis. That amendment concerned the Code provision providing private citizens with the ability to challenge the legal sufficiency of a nomination petition. The amendment added the following sentence: “Objections relating to incorrect or incomplete information for information that is required under section 43.14 or 43.18 shall be sustained.” Iowa Code § 43.24(1). Section 43.14, as noted above, does not mention deficiencies relating to the date accompanying a signature.

The Court held that even though the use of “shall” within Section 43.15(2) might suggest that an improper or missing date could form the basis of a challenge to a petition, the more recent amendment to Section 43.24(1) compels the opposite conclusion. The Court acknowledged, “Statutory interpretation is not like proving math theorems, and it is sometimes difficult to come up with a neat answer that is intellectually satisfying.”

All of the justices concurred in the unsigned, per curiam opinion except for Justices McDonald and Oxley, who concurred in the result only. Justice McDonald filed a special concurrence, joined by Justice Oxley, which stated, in full: “I concur only in the judgment.”

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