Iowa Supreme Court rejects Gov. Reynolds’ attempt to have open records lawsuit thrown out

Gov. Kim Reynolds answers one last question from reporters as she gathers up her things during a COVID-19 press conference on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. — video still

On Friday, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected Gov. Kim Reynolds’ attempt to have a lawsuit alleging violations of the state’s Open Record Act dismissed. The justices rejected the governor’s argument that the law’s requirement to respond to requests in a timely manner cannot be enforced when a governor ignores it. The court also found that Reynolds’ office’s failure to fulfill the records requests in the lawsuit until after the lawsuit was filed was a “silent refusal” to obey the law.

The ACLU of Iowa filed the lawsuit in December 2021 on behalf of Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland, Clark Kauffmann of Iowa Capital Dispatch and Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council (FOIC), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that represents numerous journalism outlets and open government advocates. The lawsuit cites eight particular requests for records, going back as far as 18 months earlier, which the governor’s office had not fulfilled.

Belin had requested records related to a video message the governor may have recorded for meatpacking plants early in the pandemic, communications the governor received encouraging her to sign or veto certain legislation and records related to the use of the governor’s mansion for private fundraising events. Kauffmann also requested records about the use of the governor’s mansion for a fundraiser, one that benefited Des Moines Christian School, as well as records related to the overpayment of and subsequent firing, of the director of the Iowa Veterans Home. Evans has been seeking records about the use of taxpayer dollars to send members of the Iowa State Patrol to the Texas/Mexico border over the summer, in what appeared to be a political stunt.

In May 2022, Polk County District Court Judge Joseph Seidlin rejected an attempt by the governor to have the case dismissed as moot because her office had finally turned over the record request by the plaintiffs.

“If this was true, then there would be no enforceable obligation to turn over public records until the responsible party or entity is sued,” Seidlin wrote in his decision.

Reynolds appealed that decision to the Iowa Supreme Court. Friday’s decision sends the case back to Seidlin for further action. All of the justices concurred in the decisions, except Justice Edward Mansfield who did participate in the case.

Arguing before the Iowa Supreme Court on behalf of Gov. Reynolds in February was the first significant action taken by Iowa’s new solicitor general, Eric Wessan.

Attorney General Brenna Bird appointed Wessan to his position in January. He was an unusual choice for the job, which involves representing the state in appellate proceedings in both state and federal courts. Normally, a solicitor general is an attorney with significant experience as a litigator. Wessan only had two years of experience as a practicing attorney when Bird appointed him.

Brenna Bird speaks at the AAI pancake breakfast on Feb. 15, 2023. — photo via @IowaAG on Twitter

He graduated in 2018 from the University of Chicago Law School, the same law school Bird graduated from 18 years earlier. After completing his degree, Wessan clerked for two federal judges, before joining a Chicago-based law firm.

Wessan’s unusually rapid rise to a senior position in Iowa’s executive branch was the subject of a column on the legal news site Above the Law titled, “From Law School Trolling To Solicitor General In Less Than 4 Years.”

Columnist Joe Patrice pointed out that Above the Law had not covered Wesson as an associate at his law firm, because he had not done anything significant, but did cover him as law student, when he was chair of his school’s Edmund Burke Society, a conservative group.

In 2016, while Wesson was chair of a conservative student group at his law school, the Edmund Burke Society, it scheduled a debate on immigration, summarizing the issue in the debate as whether the United States should continue “being a porcelain receptacle for other nations’ wretched refuse” and “allowing foreign bodies to enter is inviting disease into the body politic.”

After protests against that language by other students, the society “indefinitely postponed” the debate. It claimed the language in its description of the debate was just a parody of the rhetoric used in immigration debates.

Wesson, in his capacity as chair, later issued an apology. Or at least a qualified apology. At a town hall meeting of law students, he apologized to “anyone who felt attacked or belittled” and called the society debate description “a mistake.”

When Bird announced Wesson and her other appointment in January, she issued a statement saying, “I’m excited about the incredible team we’re forming of talented individuals to serve the people of Iowa. Our team is composed of critical-thinkers, who bring with them a wealth of diverse legal experience and shared vision of service.”

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