Even as she prepared to sign her second abortion ban as Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds took time to attack three Republican-appointed Iowa Supreme Court justices.
Reynolds, also a Republican, accused three members of that court—Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield—of playing politics.
“While half the bench expressed the opinion that the court had failed the parties, the public and the rule of law by refusing to decide the case, the other three justices engaged in pure political rhetoric, comparing an unborn child to trash and declaring the fetal heartbeat law to be no law at all, at all, but only a hypothetical law,” she said before she signed the abortion ban at the Family Leadership Summit on Friday, July 14.
The justices did not call fetuses trash.
In the June decision not to lift the injunction on the 2018 abortion ban, Waterman, appointed by former Gov. Terry Branstad, wrote:
“It would be ironic and troubling for our court to become the first state supreme court in the nation to hold that trash set out in a garbage can for collection is entitled to more constitutional protection than a woman’s interest in autonomy and dominion over her own body.”
Waterman was referring to a 2021 case where the Iowa Supreme Court decided trash bags couldn’t be searched without a warrant, giving trash protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Christensen, who was appointed by Reynolds, and Mansfield, appointed by Branstad, signed onto Waterman’s explanation, which listed multiple reasons for not lifting the injunction.
In her remarks at the Family Leadership Summit, Reynolds also suggested the justices were working against justice.
“We’ve continued to stand strong fighting the good fight, believing that the law would prevail and justice would be served,” she said. “Then just a few weeks ago, on June 16th, the Iowa Supreme Court, by a 3 to 3 tie, failed to exercise its authority to dissolve the lower court’s injunction of Iowa’s fetal heartbeat law.”
The governor wasn’t the only prominent Iowa Republican to come after judges specifically over the courts’ rulings that have blocked Republicans’ attempts to ban abortion in Iowa.
Just after the 3-3 split was announced, Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader, a conservative, evangelical lobbying organization called for Christensen, Waterman and Mansfield to resign, be impeached or be ousted by voters. His organization hosted the Family Leadership Summit where Reynolds signed the latest abortion ban in front of about 2,000 evangelical Christians.
“These three dissenters have shown blatant disrespect for the constitution, the people’s representatives and we the people,” Vander Plaats tweeted.
The reason for the 3-3 split was that Justice Dana Oxley recused herself from the proceeding, so the Iowa Supreme Court failed to obtain a majority opinion to lift the injunction on the 2018 bill, which meant it stayed in place.
Years ago, after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage should be legal under the Iowa Constitution. Vander Plaats successfully led a campaign to have justices fail their retention elections and be removed from the Supreme Court.
The threats against the court were concerning enough that the Iowa State Committee of the American College of Trial Lawyers penned an op-ed condemning them.
“The three justices issued a decision based on Iowa law; disagreement with a court decision is not grounds for impeachment, as then-Governor Branstad observed in 2011 after the court issued the Varnum decision recognizing a right to same-sex marriage,” wrote Bernard L. Spaeth, Jr. on behalf the organization. “The separation of powers and the principles governing judicial review would be undermined if legislators could simply remove judges or justices based on a decision they didn’t like.”
After her defeat in the Iowa Supreme Court, Reynolds called a special session of the Iowa Legislature to pass an abortion ban with basically the same language as the 2018 law.
During the July 11 special session, Senate President Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton) introduced the Senate’s version of the abortion bill and was the one to answer questions about it.
While introducing the bill, she said, “[The 2018 law] is only in limbo today because of what I view to be an overreach by the judicial branch, which questioned our roles and the checks and balances of our system, a fine line that exists in our democratic process.”
Rep. Shannon Lundgren (R-Peosta), managed the Iowa House version of the bill. She didn’t make comments about the Iowa Supreme Court in her opening or closing comments, other than to note the decision about abortion regulations should belong to Iowans and legislators, not “unelected judges.”
Polling has consistently shown a majority of Iowans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The latest numbers are at 61% of the population.
For a few days, Iowa Republicans accomplished their goal of banning abortion around six weeks of gestation, which is about when electric impulses can be detected in an embryo and before most people know they’re pregnant.
However, Polk County District Court Judge Joseph Seidlin granted a temporary injunction on Monday to block enforcement of the law. Because of that, abortion in Iowa is legal again up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Shortly after that decision was released, Reynolds vowed to fight the injunction all the way back up to the Iowa Supreme Court.
“The abortion industry’s attempt to thwart the will of Iowans and the voices of their elected representatives continues today, but I will fight this all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court where we expect a decision that will finally provide justice for the unborn,” Reynolds said.
She followed up on that during a Tuesday press conference with reporters at the Iowa Capitol.
“I think the law is constitutional. I think they got it wrong the first go-round here a couple of months ago,” Reynolds said of the Iowa Supreme Court.
The governor’s undermining of checks and balances in Iowa’s government hasn’t gone unnoticed.
During a campaign event last year, Reynolds said she wanted her attorney general and a state auditor who won’t try to sue her, despite the fact that state auditor Rob Sand has never sued her office. Reynolds got her first wish with new Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird. And while a Republican came close to ousting Sand, he narrowly won reelection, but Reynolds signed a bill this year that limits the authority of his office.
As Reynolds and Iowa Republicans continue to attack the state’s judicial system, last month state Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines) recalled Reynolds’ previous requests and where she thinks it’s heading.
“We’ve heard directly from the governor’s mouth that she wanted her own attorney general. She wanted her own state auditor, and apparently, she wants her own courts, too,” Trone Garriott said.
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