DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Supreme Court reversed Polk County District Court Judge Scott Beattie’s decision to reverse the State Objection Panel’s denial of objections to former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s nominating petitions. His decision effectively kicked her off the Democratic primary ballot in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruling places her back on the ballot.
The State Objection Panel consisted of State Auditor Rob Sand, a Democrat, Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican.
When it convened on March 29, the State Objection Panel allowed three signatures (one in Allamakee County and two in Cedar County). That ruling left Finkenauer with 100 signatures in Allamakee County and 101 in Cedar County. They ruled 2-1 (with Pate in disagreement) that the campaign “substantially complied” with the law.
When Attorney General Tom Miller’s petitions were challenged earlier in the day, the panel ruled the opposite way. As a result, Miller had to recuse himself from the panel, and Lt. Governor Adam Gregg, a Republican, took his place. Gregg and Pate ruled 2-1 to exclude signatures with an incorrect date.
State law requires U.S. Senate candidates to collect 3500 signatures, including at least 100 signatures in 18 of Iowa’s 99 counties. As a result, she would have been off the ballot if the State Objection Panel had agreed with the complainants, Kim Schmett and Leanne Pellett.
The three signatures in question had the incorrect date. One had the signer’s birthdate, one had a zip code instead of a date, and the other was left blank.
Alan Ostergren, the attorney for Schmett and Pellet, argued that state law (Iowa Code § 43.15) states explicitly, “Each signer shall add the signer’s residential address, with street and number, if any, and the date of signing.”
He argued that one could not glean a substantial compliance standard from the law.
“The Panel did not correctly interpret or apply the law in this case,” he wrote. “The Panel’s decision was ‘[b]ased upon an irrational, illogical, or wholly unjustifiable interpretation of a provision of law,’ and as such, this Court must reverse the Panel decision.”
“The Court takes no joy in this conclusion. This Court should not be in the position to make a difference in an election, and Ms. Finkenauer and her supporters should have a chance to advance her candidacy. However, this Court’s job is to sit as a referee and apply the law without passion or prejudice. It is required to rule without consideration of the politics of the day. Here the Court has attempted to fulfill that role,” he wrote in conclusion.
Finkenauer attacked Beattie after his decision stating, “In the dead of the night, a Republican judge made a partisan decision to kick me off of the ballot.”
In the dead of the night, a Republican judge made a partisan decision to kick me off of the ballot.
Plain and simple: this decision lacks merit. It is a gift to Washington Republicans and makes a mockery of our democracy.
We can't let them win—together, we MUST fight back.
— Abby Finkenauer (@Abby4Iowa) April 11, 2022
In an indirect rebuke, Iowa Supreme Court noted the timing of his ruling as a courtesy to Finkenauer’s campaign and the Justices who were going to have to hear the appeal.
“After receiving briefs and hearing arguments from the parties on April 8, the district court worked through the weekend and issued a thorough eighteen page decision on Sunday evening, April 10. The court did so to ensure that there would be adequate time and opportunity for review by this court. We appreciate the district court’s courtesy and we trust that the parties do as well,” the court wrote.
The Iowa Supreme Court acknowledged the law requires signers to include the date they signed the petition. Still, based on a change made in 2021, the law [Iowa Code § 43.24(2)(a)] also does not provide an incorrect or missing date as grounds for sustaining an objection to a signature.
“Although including the date is a legal requirement when an eligible elector signs a nomination petition… the legislature passed legislation last year to identify the specific circumstances when objections to petitions shall be sustained… The legislature did not include missing or incorrect dates as one of the grounds for sustaining an objection to a petition… We conclude that the recent legislation prevails,” the opinion reads. “Accordingly, we sustain the State Objections Panel’s decision to reject the objections as to those three signatures. This means that we reverse the carefully considered ruling of the district court and remand with directions to dismiss the objectors’ petition.”
They noted both sides’ arguments had flaws.
“Neither side’s position is without flaws. The Panel and Abby for Iowa have trouble explaining what purpose is served by the word “shall” in Iowa Code section 43.15 if nothing happens when a signer leaves out the date. They also have to explain why their statutory interpretation seemingly makes it impossible to challenge the signature of an elector who resides outside the district, so long as the elector doesn’t reside “obviously” outside the district. Id. § 43.14(2)(c).
“On the other hand, Schmett and Pellett have to explain why the legislature selected only a subset of the signing requirements as grounds for not counting signatures in section 43.14(2)(c) or sustaining objections in 43.24(1). And, seemingly, those are the more important signing requirements.
All justices unanimously agreed with the judgment, but Justices Christopher McDonald and Dana Oxley only agreed with the judgment in a concurring opinion.
Finkenauer responded to the ruling in partisan fashion.
“The GOP’s attempts to undermine ballot access and our election process were pathetic and desperate. Today they lost. With a unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court, we’re still in this fight and we WILL beat Chuck Grassley in November. It’s a good day for our democracy,” she tweeted.
The GOP’s attempts to undermine ballot access and our election process were pathetic and desperate.
Today they lost.
With a unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court, we're still in this fight and we WILL beat Chuck Grassley in November.
It's a good day for our democracy.
— Abby Finkenauer (@Abby4Iowa) April 15, 2022
Read the entire opinion below:220618_0293AD9F33EE3