IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Supreme Court justices struggled Wednesday with difficult legal questions in a landmark case over whether to restore voting rights for tens of thousands of felons.
During an hour of oral arguments, justices were divided and puzzled over how they should interpret a provision in the Iowa Constitution adopted in 1857 that permanently disenfranchises those convicted of "infamous crimes."
"Our founders gave us a phrase that gives us some difficulty today and probably has throughout our existence as a state," Chief Justice Mark Cady said. "They wanted to make people that committed infamous crimes ineligible to vote. They didn't say felony crimes. They didn't define any specific crimes. They didn't give us any guidance other than to tell us infamous crimes. What are we to do today based on our history, where we've been and where we are now?"
At stake are voting rights for many of the 57,000 felons who have been disqualified from participating in elections or running for office in Iowa. The case has been closely watched because Iowa is one of only three states that disenfranchise convicted felons for life unless their rights are restored by the governor.
The court is considering a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Kelli Jo Griffin, who lost her voting rights after being convicted of a drug offense. An opinion is expected before the court's term ends June 30.
ACLU attorney Rita Bettis told justices that Griffin's crime was not infamous and urged them to declare that only crimes that are an "affront to democratic governance" trigger disenfranchisement, such as bribery of a public official and corruption.
Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, who runs elections in Iowa's largest county, and the NAACP urged the court to adopt a similar rule. That definition would restore voting rights to most Iowa felons — and potentially inmates at state penitentiaries.
Cady and two other justices endorsed that definition in a 2014 case, saying only those felonies that were particularly serious and had a nexus to elections were disenfranchising. But their opinion didn't become law because it lacked a majority of the seven-member court. Three justices agreed then that all felonies were infamous crimes, a position that a lawyer representing the state urged them to adopt Wednesday.
Justice Brent Appel, who recused himself from the 2014 case, is seen as a potential swing vote. Appel said he believed the constitutional interpretation should be decided by the court and not lawmakers, who defined infamous crimes as all felonies in a 1994 law. "It's hard to decide, but that's our responsibility," Appel said.
Justice Edward Mansfield defended his opinion in the 2014 case, when he argued that Iowa voters ratified lawmakers' definition of "infamous crimes" as felonies when they approved a 2008 constitutional amendment. That change removed the word "idiot" from the definition of ineligible voters but left the "infamous crime" language.
But Justice David Wiggins said that amendment was only intended strike outdated language and not to change voting rights. Still, he repeatedly questioned how elections officials would be able to know which felons were eligible to vote if the court didn't adopt a clear rule such as all felons or those out of prison.
Gary Dickey, an attorney for Fitzgerald, said a more narrow definition of "infamous crimes" could be administered by identifying those offenses that would apply, using a courts database to identify people convicted of them, and then notifying them they are ineligible.
"This is the fundamental right to vote," he said. "To the extent that we have heartburn about administrative burdens, those should yield to expanding that right as much as possible."