UPDATES & ANALYSIS

2.27

Iowa Constitution can protect legislators from subpoenas, Iowa Supreme Court holds

by Rox Laird | February 27, 2024

Iowa legislators are shielded by the Iowa Constitution from being forced to produce communications with third parties in a civil proceeding related to the passage of legislation, the Iowa Supreme Court held for the first time in a decision handed down Feb. 23.

Based on that holding, the Court quashed subpoenas served by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on 11 current or former members of the Iowa Legislature. LULAC is challenging the constitutionality of several provisions of recently enacted legislation, which LULAC argues are aimed at limiting the free speech and voting rights of its members based on their political views. The subpoenas demanded documents from meetings or communications with persons outside the Legislature related to the legislators’ consideration and enactment of the challenged election laws.

The Polk County District Court ordered the legislators to comply with the subpoenas under a protective order to maintain confidentiality of documents produced in discovery. While the trial court agreed with the legislators’ argument that a legislative privilege exists under Iowa law, it said that privilege is qualified and in this case was is outweighed by LULAC’s interest in discovering individual legislators’ intent, which is relevant to LULAC’s First Amendment claim.

The legislators challenged the trial court order in a petition for writ of certiorari, which the Iowa Supreme Court granted. In its unanimous Feb. 23 decision written by Justice Dana Oxley, the Court agreed with the legislators that their communications are protected from forced disclosure by a legislative privilege under the Iowa Constitution.

That legislative privilege is not stated explicitly in the Iowa Constitution, as the Iowa Constitution lacks language similar to the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court, however, cited three provision of the Iowa Constitution that support the recognition of a legislative privilege: separation of powers under Article III, Section I; a privilege against arrest during the session of the General Assembly under Article III, Section 11; and the right of the people to “make known their opinions to their representatives” under Article I, Section 20.

Because LULAC’s subpoenas target communications regarding the legislators’ consideration of the election legislation, those communications with persons outside the Legislature fall “within the sphere of legislative activity” and within the scope of the legislative privilege, the Court said.

The question, then, was whether the privilege is absolute or qualified.

Assuming legislative communications are protected by a legislative privilege, the legislators urged the Court to declare the privilege to be absolute, while LULAC urged it to follow the trial court in finding it to be a qualified privilege.

The Supreme Court declined to follow either approach. “We need not, and do not, decide whether the legislative privilege we adopt today is qualified or absolute,” the Court said. “Either way, it protects the Legislators in this case.”

The Court held that even if the legislative privilege is a qualified privilege, it applies in this case because the documents sought were not relevant to the underlying legal claims. “LULAC asserts that the Legislators’ communications with third parties will provide evidence that the election legislation was enacted to intentionally discriminate against its members based on their viewpoints,” Oxley wrote. “However, delving into the motive or purpose of individual legislators to determine the constitutionality of legislative action is confined to cases where such inquiry is required by the very nature of the constitutional question presented.”

Challenges to legislation that would burden voters’ access to the polls should be assessed using a balancing test that has been applied by the Iowa Supreme Court in previous cases, Oxley wrote. Using that test, courts employ an analytical process comparable to that used in “ordinary litigation” weighing the State’s interest against those of injured voters.

“Thus, even if a voting restriction is found to be severe and subject to a higher level of scrutiny under the balancing test, it is the state’s regulatory interest — not the individual legislator’s intent — that determines whether the restriction violates voters’ constitutional rights,” the Court said.

“At this stage of the litigation, the intent of individual legislators has little, if any, relevance to LULAC’s claims,” Oxley wrote.

 

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February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.

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