Bird charts new course for top law enforcement office

By: - January 6, 2023 6:29 pm

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird was formally sworn into office Thursday. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Attorney General’s Office)

In her first week in office, Attorney General Brenna Bird took action consistent with her campaign promises to change tack on litigating administrative actions by President Joe Biden and seeking to reinstate Iowa’s restrictive abortion legislation.

It was an about-face from the stances taken by her predecessor, Democrat Tom Miller, who held the post for decades and declined in limited instances to litigate on behalf of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, specifically for abortion law challenges.

“I am thankful to have earned your trust to work for you as attorney general, and I’m excited to get to work for the people of Iowa,” Bird said in a news release Thursday after her formal swearing-in. “On day one, we took immediate action by joining lawsuits, prioritizing victims in the criminal justice system, and hiring all-star prosecutors.”

Brenna Bird served as a head legal adviser to former 4th District Rep. Steve King. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Bird)

On Tuesday, the day she took office, Bird’s chief deputy filed an appearance in the recent appeal of a district court judge’s December decision to leave effective an injunction against the state’s so-called Fetal Heartbeat Bill. Chief Deputy Sam Langholz told Iowa Capital Dispatch that the Attorney General’s Office will argue the appeal alongside the attorneys who were already representing Reynolds in the case.

Miller said last year that “I could not zealously assert the state’s position because of my core belief that the statute, if upheld, would undermine rights and protections for women. In my nearly 40 years in office, I have declined to represent the state in only one other similar situation.”

The case has been appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Bird said she has also joined federal lawsuits to challenge the Biden administration’s student-debt cancellations, vaccine mandates and tax-cut restrictions for states based on their receipt of federal stimulus funds.

Bird appointed Eric Wessan, a relatively young Chicago attorney, as her solicitor general to lead the office in federal and state appeals.

“He’ll play a critical role in Attorney General-elect Bird’s efforts to push back against the Biden Administration and defend all of Iowa’s statutes,” according to a Tuesday news release.

Wessan is a graduate of the prestigious University of Chicago Law School, where as a student in 2018 he was criticized for hyperbolic statements about immigration that were meant to promote a debate on the subject. He apologized on behalf of the organization that was set to host the debate, and a law school professor defended the statements as satire.

Wessan and Langholz were among several top appointments by Bird this week. Langholz is a former senior counsel for Reynolds — who has praised him as “a brilliant legal mind” — and had already worked for the attorney general’s office for about two years, helping to defend against challenges to the governor’s policies and administrative actions.

Langholz is a 2008 University of Iowa College of Law graduate with a long legal and political resume that includes overseeing the state’s indigent defense system as the State Public Defender for nearly four years and supervising administrative law judges for the Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals for nearly four years.

Other appointments this week included:

Stan Thompson as deputy attorney general for civil litigation. Reynolds appointed Thompson to be executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission about a year ago. Previously, he had litigated civil cases for more than three decades.
John Gish as assistant attorney general for victims services. Bird chose him to lead the Victims Services Division, the overhaul of which is among Bird’s top priorities. Gish was the Washington County Attorney for the past six years. He was also a staff attorney for Disability Rights Iowa, which defends the civil rights of Iowans with disabilities and aids those who have been abused or neglected.
Dan Breitbarth as assistant attorney general for legislative affairs. He was an assistant Boone County attorney for more than two years and will be an emissary at the statehouse who will lobby for Bird’s legislative priorities.

More of their credentials are listed here.

The appointees replace some of the 19 staffers whom Bird asked to resign late last month. Three people who did not resign were fired on Tuesday, Langholz said.

One of them was now-former Assistant Attorney General Sharon Wegner, who had asked for a meeting to discuss the resignation request but was denied, according to an email from Langholz provided to Capital Dispatch. Wegner was a member of the office’s Special Litigation Division.

In 2020, Wegner was criticized by the conservative-leaning political news site Iowa Field Report for giving legal advice for protesters arrested during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Des Moines.

According to Wegner’s termination letter, she received the same terms of departure as those who resigned: Pay for 30 minutes of work that day and health insurance benefits for the full month of January.

Bird is seeking to hire two seasoned prosecutors to handle high-profile criminal cases in the state. County attorneys typically prosecute the charges that arise from crimes in their counties but can ask the attorney general’s office for assistance with complex or high-stakes cases, such as alleged murders.

A job posting for the positions said Bird is seeking lawyers who have prosecuted felony cases that involved deaths and sexual assaults and went to trial.

“We need more prosecutors,” Bird said in a news release. “The Iowa Attorney General is the top law enforcement official in the state. Our office needs a talented team of the best prosecutors in the state to protect victims and bring criminals to justice.”

Langholz said those two positions will expand the number of assistant attorneys general who are available to assist the county offices.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.