Iowa Supreme Court: Legislature’s limits on criminal appeals don’t violate the Constitution

by Rox Laird | May 12, 2021

Criminal defendants have argued in appeals to the Iowa Supreme Court that recent legislation enacted by the Iowa General Assembly limiting their right of appeal violates their constitutional rights and crosses the Iowa Constitution’s boundary between legislative and judicial branches.

The Court in two recent decisions dismissed those arguments and held that the Iowa Legislature acted within its constitutional authority to limit what appeals may be heard, and how. The justices have not been unanimous in dismissing appellants’ arguments, however, and the Court is split on how to strike a balance between legislative and judicial prerogatives.

On Feb. 5, the Court in a 4-3 split decision said the 2019 legislation’s provision prohibiting defendants who are represented by legal counsel from filing appellate briefs on their own behalf does not violate the Iowa Constitution’s separation of powers. (See our earlier post on the Feb. 5 decision.)

On May 7, the Court dismissed a challenge to the constitutionality of other provisions of that 2019 legislation that bar direct appeals to the Supreme Court by persons who plead guilty to certain criminal charges and by appellants claiming ineffective assistance of counsel.

The May 7 ruling came in an appeal from Tyjaun Tucker, a Polk County man who challenged his criminal conviction for theft on grounds that his decision to plead guilty was the result of getting poor advice from his trial counsel.

Tucker’s first hurdle was the 2019 legislation’s bar on direct appeals by persons, such as himself, who plead guilty to avoid trial. His second hurdle was a provision that limits direct appeals based on claims of ineffective assistance of counsel without first applying for post-conviction relief at the District Court level.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Tucker argued that these provisions violate his right of equal protection by making an unconstitutional distinction between those convicted at trial and those who plead guilty. And he argued that the 2019 legislation violated the Iowa Constitution’s separation of powers by depriving appellate court jurisdiction to hear certain appeals.

The Court disagreed on both points.

The opinion for the majority was written by Justice Christopher McDonald and joined by Justices Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield, and Dana Oxley. Justice Matthew McDermott wrote a separate opinion, joined by Chief Justice Susan Christensen, to say that while he agreed with the Court’s judgment he would use a different analysis to resolve the constitutional issues. Justice Brent Appel wrote separately, saying he agreed with dismissing Tucker’s appeal on procedural grounds but disagreed with the majority’s constitutional analysis.

On the question of equal protection, the Court ruled that Tucker could not show that, for purposes of appellate review, he was “similarly situated” to a person convicted at trial because he voluntarily chose to plead guilty. “Those who plead guilty voluntarily place themselves in a different class for the purposes of the equal protection guarantees than those who choose to defend and go to trial,” the Court said.

The 2019 legislation included an exception for persons in Tucker’s position who can show “good cause” to make a direct appeal to the Supreme Court following a guilty plea. The Court has previously defined “good cause” to mean the appellant must show only a “legally sufficient” — as opposed to a frivolous — reason. Tucker, the Court said, failed to advance a “legally sufficient reason to pursue an appeal as a matter of right.”

Nor did the Court see the 2019 legislation as a separation-of-powers violation, because it said the Iowa Constitution gives the Legislature explicit authority to “provide for a general system of practice in all the courts of this state.”

The Legislature acted within its authority in creating the 2019 legislation, McDonald wrote: “The statute does not direct the appellate courts how to decide a particular case. Nor does the statute change the character of the appellate courts to something other than courts for the correction of errors at law. Instead, the law merely diverts all claims of ineffective assistance of counsel to postconviction relief proceedings and requires they be resolved


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