Iowa Supreme Court upholds new law, but one justice questions the Legislature’s powers

An Iowa lawyer who admitted taking money from clients without doing any work on their cases has had his Iowa law license revoked by the Iowa Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

The Iowa Supreme Court has upheld a new state law limiting the ability of criminal defendants to appeal their convictions.

One of the justices, taking issue with the majority’s reasoning, argued that it could mean the Iowa Legislature can now “invade the supervisory powers of this court” and use its “power to destroy the role of the courts in enforcing constitutional norms.”

The decision involves the case of Tyjaun Tucker, who in 2019 was working as a technician for a cable communications company, Utili-Com, entering the homes of customers and replacing their cable modems and receivers. On one occasion, Tucker was working in the bedroom of an Urbandale couple when he allegedly stole $2,750 in cash from a dresser drawer, resulting in his arrest for theft.

A few months before that incident, the General Assembly passed and the governor signed an omnibus crime bill that took effect July 1, 2019. The new law limits a defendant’s ability to appeal a conviction following a guilty plea and requires all claims of ineffective assistance of counsel to be decided during postconviction-relief proceedings rather than later, on appeal.

Tucker eventually agreed to plead guilty to theft in the second degree, with the understanding he would be placed on probation for three years. At his November 2019 plea hearing, Tucker was told by the judge that his “appellate rights after today will be that you can ask the court for permission to file an appeal. You have to establish that good cause exists before the court could grant you that right. So, knowing what your appellate rights would be after today, do you still wish to plead guilty?” Tucker responded, “I do,” stating “Yes,” when asked whether he was entering the plea voluntarily and of his own free will.

The judge imposed the agreed-upon sentence, but four weeks later, Tucker appealed, claiming the new law violated his federal and state constitutional rights.

Tucker’s new attorney argued the new state law expressed the Legislature’s view “that a guilty plea cannot be worthy of an appeal” and was an attempt by lawmakers to “dictate” to the courts how they should treat guilty pleas.

In considering the appeal, the Supreme Court noted Tucker’s argument was that the Iowa Legislature made an arbitrary distinction between the appellate rights afforded those convicted after a trial and those convicted after entering a guilty plea.

The justices said the two sets of defendants are not equally situated, since those who enter a guilty plea waive all of the defenses available to other defendants.

“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 stated.

The justices quoted from an Oregon court ruling in a similar case, noted that the defendant “could freely choose whether to put himself within the class for which he now claims unequal and more favorable treatment. He had the choice to bring himself within the ‘favored class’ created by the statute by pleading not guilty. Having chosen to plead guilty, he has all the privileges which are available to all others who have chosen to put themselves within that class.”

The justices also noted that “since the founding of our state, the legislative department has exercised its constitutional authority to create, expand, and restrict the right to appeal … We cannot conclude the legislature impeded the basic functions of this court when it decided to disallow those who plead guilty from pursuing frivolous appeals as a matter of right. This is particularly true given this court’s existing practice with respect to frivolous appeals. This court already restricts appeals following a plea of guilty through the enforcement of the frivolous appeal rule.”

Tucker’s appeal was dismissed by the court, with Justice Brent R. Appel writing a concurring opinion that said Tucker’s case should be dismissed, but only because it raised factual issues that could not be addressed on direct appeal. Appel strongly dissented from the majority with regard to the constitutional questions raised by the 2019 law.

“As I see it,” Appel wrote, “the majority opinion permits the legislature to engage in jurisdiction stripping of the Iowa Supreme Court and of the district courts and to invade the supervisory powers of this court. If the legislature has the power to jurisdiction strip this court in the area of constitutional claims, it has the power to destroy the role of the courts in enforcing constitutional norms. This simply cannot be permitted consistent with separation of powers.”

Appel also pointed out that the new law limiting appeals does not apply to serious, Class A felonies. “If the purpose is elimination of frivolous appeals, the classification permitting challenges to convictions based on guilty pleas based on Class A felonies, but not other crimes with lesser punishment, is clearly invalid under existing equal protection precedent,” Appel wrote.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.