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Across the Region: Iowa high court to consider ban on voting by felons

The Associated Press//February 11, 2016

Across the Region: Iowa high court to consider ban on voting by felons

The Associated Press//February 11, 2016


High court to consider ban on voting by felons

Kelli Jo Griffin listens during her voter-fraud trial March 19, 2014, in Keokuk, Iowa. In a nationally watched voting rights case, the Iowa Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether to loosen the state’s lifetime ban on voting and holding public office by those with felony records. AP file photo
Kelli Jo Griffin listens during her voter-fraud trial March 19, 2014, in Keokuk, Iowa. In a nationally watched voting rights case, the Iowa Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether to loosen the state’s lifetime ban on voting and holding public office by those with felony records. AP file photo

In a major voting rights case, the Iowa Supreme Court will consider whether to relax the state’s lifetime ban on voting by convicted felons.

The court said last week it would hear the case, which could clear up longstanding confusion over which of the state’s tens of thousands of former offenders are eligible to vote. American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other civil rights groups want the court to restore many of their voting rights before the November presidential election, in which Iowa could be a pivotal state. The decision could come this summer.

Iowa is one of three states — with Kentucky and Florida — with lifetime voting bans for felons unless their rights are restored by the governor.

Supporters say Iowa’s policy is required by law and correctly restores voting rights only after ex-offenders prove to the governor they have paid victim restitution and are rehabilitated. Critics say the policy disproportionately impacts the state’s black population and makes it harder for ex-offenders to reintegrate into society.

“This is an important case because Iowa is an incredible outlier,” said Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. She helped draft a brief for the League of Women Voters arguing that the policy does nothing to protect election integrity and is “detrimental to the citizens and communities of Iowa.”

She noted that about 20 states have scaled back felon disenfranchisement laws in the last two decades. Maryland lawmakers voted Tuesday to restore voting rights to 40,000 former offenders.

The case hinges on a phrase in the Iowa Constitution in 1857 that bars anyone who commits an “infamous crime” from voting. The high court and lawmakers long put all felony crimes and some misdemeanors into that category, leading to a list of 50,000 people who can’t vote.

But in April 2014, the court ruled that no misdemeanors trigger the loss of voting rights, and it would decide later whether all or only some felonies were “infamous.”

Represented by ACLU, Kelli Jo Griffin filed a lawsuit months later asking courts to declare that she can vote, arguing that her 2008 felony drug conviction was not an infamous crime. After Griffin cast a ballot in a 2013 municipal election, she was charged with illegally voting as part of a state investigation into election-related crimes.

Griffin believed she regained her voting rights when she completed her sentence, which had been the policy under Democratic governors between 2005 and 2011. But Republican Gov. Terry Branstad issued an executive order in January 2011 requiring all ex-felons to apply to him to have their rights restored, a lengthy process that few complete. Jurors acquitted Griffin.

A judge dismissed her voting rights lawsuit last year, ruling that Griffin and all other felons were disenfranchised until the Iowa Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

The ACLU is asking the high court to rule that only people who commit specific crimes that undermine “the process of democratic governance through elections” are disqualified — crimes such as treason, elections fraud or public corruption.

But assistant attorney general Meghan Gavin asked the court to keep it applicable all felonies. Trying to determine which ones are an “affront to democratic governance” could be difficult and lead to absurd results, such as disqualifying someone who commits a minor campaign-related crime but keeping violent criminals eligible, she wrote. Elections officials asked the court to adopt a standard that’s easy to administer.

Former offenders, like 46-year-old Jason Orent, are also hoping for clarity.

“It will be really important to get this settled,” said Orent, who lost his voting rights after a third drunken driving conviction in 1996.

He didn’t vote in 2012 over fear of being prosecuted in the voter fraud investigation. After consulting with a lawyer, he now believes his rights were restored in 2005 and wants the court to affirm that.

“Now if we could just get some candidates that would be worth voting for,” he said.


State judge confirmed for federal bench

A Polk County district court judge has been approved to serve as a judge in one of Iowa’s federal courts.

Sen. Chuck Grassley announced Monday that the U.S. Senate approved Rebecca Ebinger’s nomination to serve as a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Iowa.

President Barack Obama nominated Ebinger on Sept. 15 and the Senate unanimously approved the nomination Monday. Her nomination will return to Obama for final approval.

Ebinger has served as a state district judge in Iowa since 2012. Prior to that, she was an assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district’s criminal division, and she served in a similar role for the U.S. court for the northern district of Iowa from 2009 to 2011.

She received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2004.



Spitting on prosecutor to become felony under bill

Spitting at prosecutors would carry a felony charge under a bill the Wisconsin Assembly has approved.

It’s already a felony for someone to throw or expel bodily substances at police, prison guards, firefighters and first responders, such as emergency medical technicians and ambulance operators. The GOP bill would extend that protection to prosecutors, who currently can only charge people with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for the act.

The bill’s supporters say the increased penalty of up to 3 ½ years in prison and $10,000 in fines will make people think twice before spitting on prosecutors. Democrats say tougher penalties won’t stop attacks that are often tied to mental illness.

The Assembly passed the bill 84-14 on Tuesday. It goes next to the state Senate


Jury in DWI case rejects beer-battered fish defense

A Wisconsin jury has convicted a man who blamed eating beer-battered fish when he was picked up on his 10th drunken driving offense.

The Adams County jury found 76-year-old John Przybyla, of Friendship, guilty on Monday. He faces up to 12.5 years in prison.

A criminal complaint says Przybyla told the deputy who stopped him in October 2014 that the reason he smelled like alcohol was because he had been at a fish fry and had eaten beer-battered fish.

Court documents say a preliminary breath test showed Przybyla had a 0.062 percent blood-alcohol concentration. The legal limit for Wisconsin residents with three or more drunken driving convictions is 0.02 percent.


Landowners sue pipeline over spill insurance

A group of Wisconsin landowners is suing Enbridge to force the company to carry spill insurance on a pipeline that will carry Canadian tar sands oil across the state.

The landowners, all of whom live within 350 yards of the pipeline, filed the suit in Dane County court on Monday.

Despite a state ban on counties imposing spill insurance requirements, the landowners contend the law still allows citizens to demand that a court enforce the county’s zoning regulations.

Canadian-based Enbridge has been granted a conditional use permit to build a pumping station in Medina. The expanded line would carry Canadian tar sands oil from a tank farm in Superior to refineries in northern Illinois.

Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says the company has not yet received the complaint.



Lawmakers to consider death penalty repeal

A state Senate committee is set to consider a measure that would repeal the death penalty in South Dakota.

The Senate State Affairs committee is scheduled to take up the bill on Wednesday.

Republican Sen. Arthur Rusch of Vermillion is the measure’s main Senate sponsor. Rusch, a former judge, says he has personally prosecuted a death penalty case.

He says he’s seen firsthand how costly and hard it was on jurors and court personnel.

The Senate State Affairs committee during the 2015 legislative session voted down two measures to repeal or limit the death penalty.

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