Democrats in the Iowa Senate attempted to amend the Justice System Appropriations bill on Wednesday one day after the Iowa House inserted an amendment to restrict the attorney general’s ability to join lawsuits outside of state court.
The House’s amendment requires the attorney general to receive approval from either the governor, the executive council or the general assembly.
Senator Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) said the House put unprecedented and over reaching restrictions on the ability of Iowa’s attorney general to defend the people of Iowa.
“What that fundamentally fails to recognize is that the attorney general is an independent constitutional officer elected independently by the people,” Hogg said. “As such the attorney general represents the governor and state agencies in many cases, but the attorney general also has independent authority to represent Iowans. And Iowans have said repeatedly that they like the job that our attorney general is currently doing.”
Current attorney general Tom Miller, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 to a 10th four-year term. He had no Republican opponent in 2018.
Hogg expressed frustration that the proposal never went through a committee or showed up in other legislation prior to the budget.
“Our attorney general should have the discretion to make decisions about what lawsuits to participate in based on what’s right, what’s the law and what’s in the best interest of Iowans,” he said. “Were we to adopt the language that’s in this amendment and not take amendment 3221, Iowa would be the only state in the country with restrictions like this on the state’s attorney general. No other state has restrictions like this. This is very extreme. It’s an over reach and it is bad for Iowans in multiple ways because our attorney general chooses to represent our state in national litigation on many cases that are very, very important for consumers, for our health and for the environment.”
Senator Claire Celsi (D-West Moines) said Miller is her constituent.
“He’s been doing his job well since I was in junior high,” Celsi said.
She lauded Miller for joining the lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s administration from asking a question about citizenship on the 2020 U.S. Census.
“Some might call it politically motivated, I call it just smart for Iowa,” she said. “That is a colossally bad idea (asking the citizenship question). So Tom Miller took it upon himself and his office to join multiple other states in trying to stop this.”
Celsi said if only legal citizens are counted, it will cost Iowa money.
“Iowa needs the money. We need to count every citizen so that we can get every federal dollar that is allocated to our state, to our cities and to our towns,” she said. “Without that money, we might have three congressional districts instead of four. When I was in high school we had six. We need every dollar. Tom Miller is a fighter for Iowans, a consumer champion and always does what’s best for Iowans in our state regardless of the political winds.”
Senator Julian Garrett, who managed the entire bill through the floor of the Senate, noted some statistics regarding Miller’s penchant for joining lawsuits from outside of the state.
Garrett said in 2017 the attorney general filed 35 suits amicus briefs. In 2018 it was 14.
“How many do you suppose there were between 2000-2012,” Garrett asked. “Zero. Obama didn’t get sued at all.”
Garrett added that while news reports say Iowa sued President Trump over whatever issue, he said that’s not completely accurate.
“The attorney general did,” he said. “It wasn’t the governor. It wasn’t the legislature. It was the attorney general on his own.”
This amendment to require approval for the attorney general will be pleased in the Iowa code under duties of the attorney general, Garrett said.
“There’s nothing unconstitutional about it in the least,” Garrett said. “Talking about constitutional office — that sounds pretty impressive — but there’s a whole section in the code. This was a very high priority for the Iowa House when we were negotiating. I think this is a good idea. It isn’t unreasonable if the attorney general wants to go out and sue the president that you ought to have a little bit of backing from say the governor, the legislature or the executive council. He’s got a lot of choices. If none of them want to join in, it’s not unreasonable to me to say he shouldn’t be doing this. He ought to be tending to his duties here in the state.”
Senator Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) said Miller has done a good thing in challenging Trump.
“He’s entered those cases on behalf of his constituents,” Bolkcom said. “He’s a statewide elected official.”
Bolkcom said Iowans want their attorney general to be active. And, he said, Republicans should remember this will apply to any potential future Republican attorney general as well as the current Democrat one.
“Tom Miller is not going to be there forever,” he said. “By the way, President Trump needs to be sued a few times. That isn’t our decision. President Trump has done all sorts of crazy stuff. So I’m happy and a lot of people in this state are happy that Tom Miller stood up for the people of this country and the people of this state. I haven’t looked up the vote totals, but I’m guessing Tom Miller got more votes than Gov. Reynolds in this last election.”
Senator Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo) said he was in the House on Tuesday night listening to the debate and he wasn’t impressed.
“Quite frankly it made my blood boil,” he said. “I mean, it’s a blatant political move by a majority party who I feel is over reaching their bounds or drunk with power because it’s all about politics of trying to protect a president of this United States who every day more evidence is coming out that yes, he ought to be challenged in every court in this nation for the actions that he’s made.
“If you read the report of the stuff that our president has been doing, I cannot believe that you would stand up and stand in this chamber and say that our attorney general does not have the right to stand up for the people of Iowa because he went after the President of the United States decisions multiple times.”
Dotzler pointed out that Iowans voted for Miller and not the Republican Party’s candidate in 2018. But the Republican Party didn’t actually have a candidate in the attorney general race.
“I cannot believe what this chamber has become,” Dotzler said. “People (used to say) the House is where the kettle boils, but it’s the Senate that puts the lid on it, because we are supposed to be people of reason and common sense and understanding what our constitution is about. And I believe in the separation of powers.”
Senator Liz Mathis (D-Hiawatha) said it sounds like Iowa Senators think Iowa has a fence around it. She referenced Sen. Tim Kapucian’s bill about fishing and said since we can’t fish in Wisconsin then they can’t fish here.
“All the sudden we’re putting up fences around our state,” she said. “I really thought that we were moving towards a more global society. It makes us sound like Mayberry.”
Hogg said while much of the conversation regarding the amendment centers around Miller, it’s about the office of Attorney General.
“It’s an office that is elected by Iowans,” Hogg said. “Senator Garrett, you said it was a real priority of the House — they never filed a bill, they never put a bill in the Judiciary committee. And the irony is they put it on a budget bill where the attorney general actually brings more money to the state than we provide funds to his office.”
Hogg said one reason he’s able to provide money for the state is his ability to independently enter into lawsuits.
“We’ve elected an attorney general to do the job to not only represent the state directly in an attorney-client relationship but also to represent Iowans exercising his or her independent judgement about what’s right and what’s law. I really hope that this mistake can be fixed.”
The amendment failed on a party line vote.