An Infamous Case: How the Iowa Supreme Court's Minimalist Approach Forced Everyone to Come Back for More in Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel, 846 N.w.2d 845 (iowa 2014)

Publication year2021
CitationVol. 94

94 Nebraska L. Rev. 737. An Infamous Case: How the Iowa Supreme Court's Minimalist Approach Forced Everyone to Come Back for More in Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel, 846 N.W.2d 845 (Iowa 2014)

An Infamous Case: How the Iowa Supreme Court's Minimalist Approach Forced Everyone to Come Back for More in Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel, 846 N.W.2d 845 (Iowa 2014)

Michael S. Boal(fn*)


I. Introduction .......................................... 737

II. Background ........................................... 740
A. Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel Facts ................ 740
B. Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel Opinions ............ 741
C. Judicial Minimalism ............................... 746

III. Analysis .............................................. 748
A. Dual Disorder: Two Levels of Minimalism .......... 748
B. More Harm than Good: Four Indicators ............ 750
1. Final Arbiter of Constitutional Rights .......... 750
2. Application of Stare Decisis .................... 753
3. Repeat Players and Institutional Relationships . 755
4. Increased Future Litigation .................... 759

IV. Conclusion ............................................ 762


Every first year law student will learn-and eventually become all too comfortable with-the common axiom "hard cases make bad law." While these hard cases may produce worthy academic discussion, they also create challenging legal hurdles for future courts, future litigants, and sometimes, citizens who have no intention of ever stepping through the courthouse doors. Occasionally, a court may allude to the


notion that its decision is "bad law," either through its own admission or through a complete lack of precedential support for a given outcome.(fn1) In these situations, the court ultimately faces a crucial decision: should the court limit its holding in the narrowest sense possible, or should the court instead show its work and attempt to rationalize the volatile or suspect result?

Every word in an opinion is important.(fn2) In a legal universe where stare decisis is nearly sacrosanct, every word written by a court may be potentially relied on for decades.(fn3) Thus, it would seem to follow that hard cases-and the corresponding "bad law"-should, whenever possible, address only the most narrow issues to dispose of a case. This approach, known as judicial minimalism, has been most strongly advocated by distinguished law scholar Cass Sunstein as an approach to limit the largely non-democratic role of the judicial branch.(fn4) Minimalist courts act with the mindset of, "Today I'll tell you a little. If you bring me your next dispute tomorrow, I'll tell you a little more. But you must keep coming back to me to get the answers."(fn5) However, some hard cases demand a court show its work and give state actors and citizens reliable guidance. Some cases require that a court soundly theorize its holding and pronounce a clear rule for future application.

In April 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court heard and decided Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel,(fn6) which presented the question of whether operating while intoxicated (OWI), second offense, was an "infamous crime" within the meaning of Iowa's voter disqualification constitutional provision.(fn7) Article II, section 5 of the Iowa Constitution pro-


vides that a person "convicted of any infamous crime"(fn8) is not entitled to vote in statewide elections or run for statewide office.(fn9) All things considered, Chiodo was a hard case.(fn10) Accordingly, Chiodo will likely be seen as bad law: a three-justice plurality overruled a nearly 100-year-old decision, cast serious doubt on an equally tenured doctrine, and offered a new framework to define infamous crime with no more explanation than necessary.(fn11) Meanwhile, a two-justice special concurrence disagreed that the court's precedent must be overruled, but nevertheless departed from that precedent and applied its own reasoning.(fn12) Further, one dissenting justice disapproved of the analysis by both the plurality and concurrence, and instead concluded the court's century-old doctrine should have bound the court in the current case.(fn13) Post-Chiodo, the interpretation of "infamous crime," which affects every Iowan's right to vote,(fn14) is undeniably more ambiguous than ever before.(fn15)

This Note explores whether a court must avoid judicial minimalism in certain cases and instead develop a broad theoretical foundation for its holding. Part II first presents the facts of Chiodo, provides the reasoning of the court's three opinions, and outlines the basic tenets of Sunstein's judicial minimalism doctrine.(fn16) Section III.A identifies two distinct levels of judicial minimalism that appear in the Chiodo decision.(fn17) Section III.B advances four indicators for future courts to consider in determining whether judicial minimalism is an


efficient or beneficial use of the court's resources in disposing of the case.(fn18)

Subsection III.B.1 proposes courts should avoid minimalism when interpreting constitutional rights.(fn19) Subsection III.B.2 suggests courts should employ minimalism only to the extent that the doctrine of stare decisis applies.(fn20) Subsection III.B.3 posits courts should avoid minimalism when a decision involves repeat state actors or institutions.(fn21) Finally, subsection III.B.4 proposes courts should not employ minimalism if there is substantial risk of increased future litigation.(fn22) Because all four indicators were present in Chiodo, the case operates as a constructive example of the consequences that may result if a court nevertheless adopts a minimalist approach.(fn23) Ultimately, this Note concludes that certain cases, based on these indicators, should not be disposed of using minimalism because of inevitable adverse consequences.


A. Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel Facts

On March 11, 2014, Anthony Bisignano filed an affidavit of candidacy to run for the Iowa Senate.(fn24) Bisignano had previously been convicted of OWI, second offense, and was sentenced to seven days in jail and two years of probation.(fn25) After Bisignano filed for office, another candidate, Ned Chiodo, filed an objection to Bisignano's entrance into the senate race on the grounds that Bisignano was disqualified from holding public office under article II, section 5 of the Iowa Constitution.(fn26) Under 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."(fn27) Because Iowa law requires any person seeking elective office to be an "eligible elector" at the time of the election,(fn28) Chiodo believed that Bisignano should be barred from running.

Pursuant to Iowa law, Chiodo's objection was heard by a panel comprised of the Iowa Attorney General, the Iowa Auditor of State, and the Iowa Secretary of State (the Panel).(fn29) The Panel denied Chiodo's objection, finding that OWI, second offense, was not an infamous crime within the meaning of section 5, and therefore Bisignano was eligible to run for state senate.(fn30) Chiodo appealed to the district court, which affirmed the Panel's decision.(fn31) Almost immediately, the Iowa Supreme Court granted expedited review.(fn32) A mere fifteen days separated the district court's affirmance of the Panel's findings, submission of appellate briefs, oral argument, and issuance of the Supreme Court's final opinion.(fn33)

B. Chiodo v. Section 43.24 Panel Opinions

The issue presented to the Iowa Supreme Court in Chiodo was quite clear: whether OWI, second offense, is an infamous crime within the meaning of article II, section 5 of the Iowa Constitution.(fn34) The


Iowa Supreme Court is not the first state high court to interpret the phrase "infamous crime" for purposes of a voter disqualification constitutional provision;(fn35) in fact, seven other state constitutions provide for voter disqualification after conviction of a crime deemed "infamous."(fn36) While some courts cited precedent to interpret the phrase,(fn37) others simply deferred to a legislative definition.(fn38) Still others engaged in an independent textual analysis of the phrase.(fn39) Remarkably, Chiodo drew on all three interpretive approaches before reachinga conclusion.(fn40)

Unfortunately, the outcome of Chiodo was less than clear: a three-justice plurality found the crime is not infamous because it is not a "particularly serious" crime that tends to undermine the electoral process.(fn41) A two-justice concurrence agreed the crime is not infamous, but only because the crime is not a felony.(fn42) The lone dissenting justice argued the crime is categorically infamous because it carries a punishment of confinement in prison.(fn43) Ultimately, because five of the six participating justices(fn44) agreed that Bisignano's crime-an aggravated misdemeanor-was not infamous, he was eligible to run for the Iowa Senate.(fn45)

Chief Justice Mark Cady, who authored the court's plurality opinion, first recognized the gravity and significance of the case by imme-


diately refocusing the issue from whether conviction of an infamous crime precluded a candidate from running for office to whether conviction of an infamous crime precludes a citizen from voting in an election.(fn46) "An 'eligible elector' under our law is a person who possesses the qualifications...

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