Iowa Supreme Court upholds part of Waterloo’s ‘ban the box’ ordinance

By: - June 21, 2021 12:52 pm

Iowa Supreme Court justices file into the chamber March 24, 2021. (Screen shot from Iowa Judicial Branch livestream)

A portion of Waterloo’s “ban the box” ordinance will remain in place after an Iowa Supreme Court decision.

The court affirmed the ordinance’s regulation that businesses with more than 15 employees cannot ask about job applicants’ criminal histories until they extend a conditional job offer. The court nullified the section of the ordinance that prohibits businesses from making decisions solely based on an applicants’ criminal record. 

“Ban the box” refers to a box on a job application form asking applicants to disclose whether they had been convicted of a crime.

The city of Waterloo passed the ordinance in 2019. The city’s human rights commission saw it as a way to address discrimination against African Americans, who make up about 16% of the city’s population, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Immediately after the ordinance passed, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry — the state’s largest business organization with more than 1,500 member businesses — filed suit against the city, the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights, and Martin M. Peterson, the city attorney. The organization argued the ordinance violated state law. 

The Iowa Legislature approved House File 295 in 2017, barring Iowa’s cities and counties from “establishing certain regulations relating to employment matters.” 

A district court ruled the ordinance was “consistent with the authority given to cities” in the spring of 2020. 

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Edward Mansfield wrote the court’s opinion, finding that the ability to delay questions about criminal records does not prescribe terms and conditions of employment, meaning the ordinance does not conflict with Iowa law. 

“In our view, what ultimately matters is that it preempts some hiring practices, namely, those that amount to terms or conditions of employment,” Mansfield wrote. The court’s opinion called the ordinance’s approach “practical,” saying its practices do not result in any unfairness toward the association or its members.  

Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Brent Appel, Thomas Waterman, and Dana Oxley joined the majority opinion. Justice Christopher McDonald concurred in part and dissented in part. Justice Matthew McDermott did not consider the case or take part in the decision.

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.