Chiodo v. Schultz, 14-0553

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtCADY
Docket NumberNo. 14-0553,14-0553
Decision Date15 April 2014

NED CHIODO, Appellant,
ANTHONY BISIGNANO, Intervenor-Appellee.

No. 14-0553


Filed April 15, 2014

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, David L. Christensen, Judge.

In an expedited appeal from a ruling on judicial review, the petitioner challenges the denial of his objection to the intervenor's eligibility to seek elective office. AFFIRMED.

Gary D. Dickey Jr. of Dickey & Campbell Law Firm, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Thompson, Solicitor General, and Meghan L. Gavin, Assistant Attorney General, for appellees.

Joseph C. Glazebrook of Glazebrook & Moe, LLP, Des Moines, for intervenor-appellee.

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Rita Bettis and Randall C. Wilson, Des Moines, for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Foundation, Inc.

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CADY, Chief Justice.

In this appeal, we must decide if the Iowa Constitution disqualifies a person who has been convicted of the crime of operating while intoxicated (OWI), second offense, from holding a public office. The state elections panel (Panel) found the intervenor in this case was not disqualified, as did the district court on judicial review of the Panel decision. On our review of the district court decision, we hold a person convicted of the crime of OWI, second offense, is not disqualified from holding a public office in Iowa. We affirm the decision of the district court.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On March 11, 2014, Anthony Bisignano filed an affidavit of candidacy for Iowa Senate in District 17 with the Iowa Secretary of State. District 17 covers a portion of Polk County, and Bisignano sought the Democratic nomination. Two days later, Ned Chiodo filed an objection to the affidavit of candidacy filed by Bisignano. Chiodo had previously filed an affidavit of candidacy for Iowa Senate in District 17. He also sought the Democratic nomination, along with another candidate, Nathan Blake. Blake is an assistant attorney general in the Iowa Department of Justice.

In the objection, Chiodo claimed Bisignano was disqualified from holding public office based on his prior conviction of the crime of OWI, second offense. Chiodo requested the Secretary of State not to place Bisignano's name on the primary ballot.

Bisignano was convicted in district court of OWI, second offense, on December 9, 2013. The district court sentenced him to a term of incarceration not to exceed two years, but suspended all but seven days of the incarceration and placed him on probation with the Iowa Department of Correctional Services for two years.

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The objection filed by Chiodo with the Secretary of State was heard by the three-person panel on March 19, 2014. On March 21, the Panel denied the objection.

Chiodo filed a petition for judicial review of the decision of the Panel with the district court. On April 2, the district court affirmed the decision of the Panel. Chiodo promptly filed a notice of appeal. We granted expedited review.

Chiodo raises two issues for review on appeal. First, he argues Attorney General Thomas Miller was required to recuse himself from considering the objection as a part of the three-person panel due to a conflict of interest. Second, he claims a criminal conviction for an aggravated misdemeanor constitutes an infamous crime, which disqualifies a person with such a conviction from holding office under article II, section 5 of the Iowa Constitution.

We decline to consider Chiodo's challenge to the Attorney General's participation on the Panel. In oral argument, Chiodo acknowledged he does not assert this claim to seek a remedy in this case. We thus proceed only to consider Chiodo's main contention that the Panel's ruling that OWI, second offense, was not an infamous crime was contrary to the Iowa Constitution.

II. Scope of Review.

The Iowa Code authorizes judicial review of agency decisions that prejudice the "substantial rights" of the petitioner.1 Iowa Code

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§ 17A.19(1), (10) (2013); accord Renda v. Iowa Civil Rights Comm'n, 784 N.W.2d 8, 10 (Iowa 2010). Among the grounds upon which a district court may grant relief is action that is "[u]nconstitutional on its face or as applied" or action "based upon a provision of law that is unconstitutional on its face or as applied." Iowa Code § 17A.19(10)(a). "[W]e review agency action involving constitutional issues de novo." Gartner v. Iowa Dep't of Pub. Health, 830 N.W.2d 335, 344 (Iowa 2013).

III. Discussion.

The laws of this state provide that a person who seeks public office must be an "eligible elector." Iowa Code § 39.26. An "eligible elector" under our law is a person who possesses the qualifications to be a registered voter. Id. § 39.3(6). The qualifications to vote have roots in our Iowa Constitution and address concepts of citizenship, age, and residency. See Iowa Const. art. II, § 1. In short, a person who runs for public office in Iowa must be a person who can vote in Iowa. Thus, restrictions on those who run for office are actually restrictions on those who can vote.

Voting is a fundamental right in Iowa, indeed the nation. See Devine v. Wonderlich, 268 N.W.2d 620, 623 (Iowa 1978). It occupies an irreducibly vital role in our system of government by providing citizens with a voice in our democracy and in the election of those who make the laws by which all must live. See Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 17, 84 S. Ct. 526, 535, 11 L. Ed. 2d 481, 492 (1964). The right to vote is found at the heart of representative government and is "preservative of other basic civil and political rights." Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 562, 84 S. Ct. 1362, 1381, 12 L. Ed. 2d 506, 527 (1964); accord Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 370, 6 S. Ct. 1064, 1071, 30 L. Ed. 220, 226 (1866).

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While our constitution underscores the importance and respect for the voting process that gives voice to democratic governance, it does not extend that voice to every person. As with all rights, the right to vote is not absolute. Instead, two classes of people in Iowa are disqualified from voting. Under article II, section 5, "[a] person adjudged mentally incompetent to vote or a person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector." Iowa Const. art. II, § 5.

As with many other terms and phrases in our constitution, our founders did not give us a definition of the phrase "infamous crime." From the beginning of our constitutional journey as a state, as now, the courts have been given the role to interpret the constitution and provide the needed definition so our constitutional principles can be applied to resolve the disputes we face today. See Varnum v. Brien, 763 N.W.2d 862, 875 (Iowa 2009). Our founders not only declined to list specific crimes that would disqualify people from participating in the election process, they did not use traditional classes or categories of crimes such as felony or misdemeanor to disqualify a voter. Instead, our founders gave us the phrase "infamous crime." The foundational question we face today is whether the crime of OWI, second offense, is an infamous crime.

We do not begin our resolution of this case on a clean slate. We have considered the meaning of the phrase "infamous crime" in the past and have given it a rather direct and straightforward definition. We have said "[a]ny crime punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary is an infamous crime." State ex rel. Dean v. Haubrich, 248 Iowa 978, 980, 83 N.W.2d 451, 452 (1957); accord Blodgett v. Clarke, 177 Iowa 575, 578, 159 N.W. 243, 244 (1916) (per curiam); see also Flannagan v. Jepson, 177 Iowa 393, 399-400, 158 N.W. 641, 643 (1916).

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If this definition is applied to resolve the question in this case, we need little additional analysis. Our legislature has defined the crime of OWI, second offense, as an aggravated misdemeanor. Iowa Code § 321J.2(2)(b). An aggravated misdemeanor has been defined by our legislature to be a crime punishable by imprisonment within our state correctional system. See id. § 321J.2(4)(a); id. § 901.7. Thus, under our existing interpretation of the phrase "infamous crime," a strong argument exists that Bisignano is disqualified from running for public office, as well as participating in our democracy as a voter. He claims, however, our prior interpretation of the phrase "infamous crime" is incorrect. The Panel agreed with this claim, and we now proceed to consider it.

Our judicial process is built on the general principle of stare decisis. We normally build upon and follow our past cases. Yet, our experience has revealed times when our precedents must be overturned. State v. Miller, 841 N.W.2d 583, 586 (Iowa 2014). Within a system of justice, courts cannot blindly follow the past. Instead, we are obligated to depart from past cases when they were erroneously decided. Thus, we turn to review our prior cases that have interpreted the phrase "infamous crime" to determine if those cases were correctly decided.

We first considered the phrase "infamous crime" outside the context of article II, section 5. In Flannagan, the defendant continued to maintain a "liquor nuisance" after the district court entered a decree...

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