Legislative act barring pro se briefs does not cross constitutional line, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | February 11, 2021

Legislation enacted by the Iowa General Assembly that prohibits defendants who are represented by legal counsel from filing appellate briefs on their own behalf does not violate the Iowa Constitution’s separation of legislative and judicial powers, the Iowa Supreme Court has narrowly held.

In a 4-3 decision handed down Feb. 5, the Court said the Iowa Constitution in Article V, Section 14, vests the Legislature with the power “to provide for a general system of practice in all the courts of this state.” Thus, the Court said, the judicial department’s authority to regulate the practice and procedure of its courts “must give way where the legislative department has acted.”

The majority opinion was written by Justice Christopher McDonald and joined by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and Dana Oxley. Justice Matthew McDermott filed an opinion concurring with the majority’s holding affirming Thompson’s conviction, but dissented on the constitutional question. Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Brent Appel joined McDermott’s opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The Iowa Legislature in 2019 passed a bill that bars defendants from filing documents pro se (Latin for “on one’s own behalf,” or without a lawyer) if they are represented by an attorney. The statute, 814.6A, says: “A defendant who is currently represented by counsel shall not file any pro se document, including a brief, reply brief, or motion, in any Iowa court. The court shall not consider, and opposing counsel shall not respond to, such pro se filings.”  This new statute conflicts with the existing Iowa Rules of Appellate Procedure, which allowed such filings in certain circumstances.

In an appeal of his criminal conviction to the Iowa Supreme Court, Howard Thompson, who submitted his own seven-page, hand-written brief to the Court in addition to his lawyer’s brief, argued that the Legislature violated the constitution’s separation of powers. The State, in a brief filed by Attorney General Tom Miller, argued the Court could not consider Thompson’s pro se brief in light of 814.6A, which the State argued is constitutional.

The Court agreed with the State, disagreed with Thompson on the constitutional question, and it affirmed Thompson’s conviction on two counts of attempting to obtain a prescription drug by deceit as a habitual offender.

The majority opinion said Iowa’s Constitution grants the Legislature the authority to regulate the practice and procedure in all Iowa courts: Article V, Section 4 grants the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction “under such restrictions as the general assembly may, by law, prescribe.” Article V, Section 6 provides that the District Court shall have jurisdiction “as shall be prescribed by law.” And article V Section 14 says it is “the duty of the general assembly . . . to provide for a general system of practice in all the courts of this state.”

“In short,” McDonald wrote, “the constitutional text supports the State’s position that the legislative department has the authority to prohibit the filing of pro se supplemental briefs on appeal.”

Thompson also argued that Iowa Code Section 814.6A “impairs the essential function of the appellate courts because the new law violates a defendant’s right to present legal claims on appeal.” The majority dismissed that argument, noting that there is “no independent right that requires a represented party be allowed to file pro se documents on appeal.”

There are legitimate reasons why the Legislature would restrict parties from filing pro se documents on appeal, the Court said, including ensuring that attorney and client speak with one voice, and that only issues of merit are presented, all of which promote effective advocacy and reduce procedural confusion. “The legislative department’s decision to advance these interests does not impede the immediate, necessary, efficient, and basic functioning of our appellate courts,” McDonald wrote.

In his dissent, Justice McDermott said that the Legislature does not have the authority under the Iowa Constitution to dictate what information the appellate courts may have in deciding cases.

“The judiciary bears the constitutional duty to decide cases and, thus, must have access to the tools that are part and parcel to carrying out this responsibility,” McDermott wrote. “By restricting who can file briefs, the legislature limits the courts’ sources of knowledge” to decide cases.

“The legislative power to control the court’s jurisdiction is the power to control what parties and cases may come before the court and when,” McDermott wrote. “But once a case is before the court, the legislature doesn’t have the power to control the arguments the parties may make, just as it doesn’t have the power to control what courts may use, or consider, in arriving at their decisions. A statute that purports to restrict both the court’s sources of information and what courts may contemplate in the decision-making process necessarily infringes the judiciary’s ability to interpret the law.”

McDermott said he is troubled not only by the majority’s holding in this case but what it could mean for future cases. For example, he said, could the Legislature forbid consideration of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs? Hearing oral arguments? Citations from law review articles?  Arguments in briefs that the words in a law should be given their ordinary meanings at the time the law was enacted?

A footnote in the majority opinion said such hypothetical examples raised by the dissent were not before the Court in this case, but McDermott said they may be one day.

“Having now permitted the legislature to dictate the sources of information the court may solicit and use in its decision-making process,” McDermott wrote, “it’s hard to see how any of these things are off-limits. And once this particular separation-of-powers safeguard is removed, a wide assortment of constitutional abuses becomes possible.”


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