DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday split 3-3 failing to reach a majority on whether they should overturn or uphold the district court decision to block Iowa’s fetal heartbeat abortion ban.
Because of the split decision due to the recusal of Justice Dana Oxley, the district court four-year-old injunction of the law stands.
The fetal heartbeat abortion ban was passed and signed into law in May of 2018, the next month, the Iowa Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Reynolds (2018), ruled a that the state’s 72-hour waiting period unconstitutional and determined that the Iowa Constitution provides a right to abortion and any abortion restriction should be viewed with strict scrutiny.
Based on that decision, a district court judge enjoined the fetal heartbeat abortion ban. Because of state and federal precedent, Gov. Kim Reynolds decided not to appeal the decision since they were unlikely to be successful at that time.
The make-up of the court changed since that 2018 decision, and in 2022 the Iowa Supreme Court reversed that decision in Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds (2022) last summer and uphed a 24-hour waiting period.
The Supreme Court, shortly after that decision, overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, lifting the federal “undue burden” standard that hindered attempts to restrict abortion.
Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield held that the district court’s decision to uphold its injunction was lawful and the four-year-old injunction should remain in place.
“The State appealed, and now asks our court to do something that has never happened in Iowa history: to simultaneously bypass the legislature and change the law, to adopt rational basis review, and then to dissolve an injunction to put a statute into effect for the first time in the same case in which that very enactment was declared unconstitutional years earlier. In our view, it is legislating from the bench to take a statute that was moribund when it was enacted and has been enjoined for four years and then to put it into effect,” Waterman wrote in an opinion joined by Christensen and Mansfield.
Mansfield pointed out that Reynolds, did not appeal the ruling and the injunciton later became permanent.
He also noted the Iowa Legislature did not take any action on the issue of abortion during the last session, including the passing fetal heartbeat ban a second time following the Iowa Supreme Court’s and Supreme Court’s 2022 decisions on abortion. He asserted that when the fetal heartbeat abortion ban passed in 2018, the Iowa Legislature enacted a “hypthetical law” since it “no chance of taking effect.”
Mansfield also said that the state in Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (2022) did not ask the Iowa Supreme Court to apply the rational basis standard to the 24-hour waiting period.
Justice Christopher MacDonald wrote a seperate opinion which Justices Matthew McDermott and David May joined.
“The fetal heartbeat law was passed in accord with the Iowa Constitution; thus, contrary to my colleagues’ assertion, it is not a ‘hypothetical law.’ It is an actual law. And contrary to my colleagues’ assertion, the legislature does not need to ‘reenact section 146C’ to demonstrate that it is an actual law,” he wrote.
“While a court’s judgment in a particular case has legal consequences beyond the particular case due to the doctrines of stare decisis and res judicata, a court’s judgment that a law is unconstitutional does not repeal the law or cause the law to cease to exist,” he added.
“It is almost universally accepted (except by my colleagues today) that courts have inherent authority to modify or dissolve a permanent injunction based on changes in fact or law without regard to the passage of time,” McDonald wrote.
Justice McDermott also offered an opinion joined by Justices McDonald and May.
“Last year, we were presented with an appeal challenging the constitutionality of a different statute regulating abortion, yet we failed to declare the constitutional standard that applied. This case again presented that same basic task. And for the second time in as many years, we’ve ducked it. It isn’t for us to dictate abortion policy in the state, but simply to interpret and apply the law as best we can in cases that come before us. We fail the parties, the public, and the rule of law in our refusal today to apply the law and decide this case,” he concluded.
Governor Reynolds and the Legislature’s Republican leadership responded to the split opinion.
“To say that today’s lack of action by the Iowa Supreme Court is a disappointment is an understatement. Not only does it disregard Iowa voters who elected representatives willing to stand up for the rights of unborn children, but it has sided with a single judge in a single county who struck down Iowa’s legislation based on principles that now have been flat-out rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no fundamental right to abortion and any law restricting it should be reviewed on a rational basis standard – a fact acknowledged today by three of the justices. Still, without an affirmative decision, there is no justice for the unborn,” she said.
“But the fight is not over. There is no right more sacred than life, and nothing more worthy of our strongest defense than the innocent unborn. We are reviewing our options in preparation for continuing the fight,” Reynolds added.
Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, disagreed with Waterman’s decision.
“I disagree with the Supreme Court’s opinion today. Their decision a year ago, correctly overturning the 2018 decision, should reasonably be considered a substantial change in the law and the injunction should have been lifted. Senate Republicans have a consistent record of defending life, including the passage of the Heartbeat Bill. We will work with Governor Reynolds and the House to advance pro-life policies to protect the unborn,” he said.
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, expressed his disappointment.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court’s opinion today. We feel strongly that the Heartbeat Bill is a good piece of legislation that would save the innocent lives of unborn children. Going forward we will work together to pass legislation that will protect life, support new mothers, and promote strong families in Iowa,” he said.
Read the court opinions below:PPH-2023-Iowa-Supreme-Court