Iowa Supreme Court unanimously finds legislative privilege extends to election law dispute

From the introduction of Justice Dana Oxley’s opinion for the Court in Smith v. Iowa District Court for Polk County:

In an effort to support its constitutional challenges to recent legislative changes to voting procedures, the League of Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC) served subpoenas on several Iowa legislators, seeking discovery of communications the legislators had with third parties related to enactment of the legislation. The legislators, who were not parties to the underlying litigation, objected to the subpoenas, LULAC filed a motion to compel, and the district court granted the motion in part. The nonparty legislators filed a petition for writ of certiorari, arguing they are protected from compelled document production by a legislative privilege under the Iowa Constitution.

This certiorari proceeding presents our first opportunity to address whether the Iowa Constitution—which lacks a speech or debate clause—nonetheless supports a legislative privilege that protects Iowa legislators from compelled production of documents related to the passage of legislation. The district court concluded that the Iowa Constitution provides a privilege, but the privilege is conditional rather than absolute. It then concluded that compelling, competing interests—specifically LULAC’s claims that the legislation amounts to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination—require piercing the privilege with respect to most of the documents sought in the underlying litigation.

We now hold that the Iowa Constitution contains a legislative privilege that protects legislators from compelled document production and that the privilege extends to communications with third parties where the communications relate directly to the legislative process of considering and enacting legislation. However, we need not, and therefore do not, decide whether the legislative privilege is absolute or qualified. The district court applied the wrong analysis when it relied on gerrymandering cases, where some courts hold that “judicial inquiry into legislative intent is specifically contemplated as part of the resolution of the core issue that such cases present.” Bethune-Hill v. Va. State Bd. of Elections, 114 F. Supp. 3d 323, 337 (E.D. Va. 2015). The district court should have considered the underlying claims—which challenge changes to the voting procedures as violating individual voters’ constitutional rights—through the lens of the Anderson-Burdick balancing test. See Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780, 789 (1983); Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428, 434 (1992). That test balances the “character and magnitude” of the injury to the individual voters’ rights against the state’s justification for the changes, Anderson, 460 U.S. at 789, neither of which turn on legislative intent. Therefore, the individual legislators’ intent has little, if any, relevance to LULAC’s claims. Whether absolute or qualified, the legislative privilege protects the legislators from the requested document production.

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