Juvenile home closure hits a judicial stop sign

But judge's order doesn't end the saga, and big questions remain

Todd Dorman
Published: February 6 2014 | 12:22 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:16 am in
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Iowa governors have a lot of power. Vetoes and line-item vetoes, appointments and transfer authority, across-the-board budget axing, executive ordering, etc.

Once in a while, someone, or a group of someones, believes that a powerful governor has gone too far, so they go to court. Sometimes, the courts agree, and they wave a big 'ol stop sign in front of that authority-exceeding chief executive.

But rarely will you see a stop sign waved as emphatically as Polk County District Court Judge Scott D. Rosenberg did on Wednesday. Rosenberg turned on some flashing lights, lit flares and threw down stop sticks.

He ruled that Gov. Terry Branstad and his Department of Human Services Director, Chuck Palmer, exceeded the executive branch's constitutional authority when they closed the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo. The Legislature appropriated $8.8 million to run the home, and Branstad signed that budget into law. To then close the home, Rosenberg ruled, flies in the face of the governor's duty to faithfully execute state laws. If he wanted to close the home, he contends, Branstad could have vetoed its line item.

Clearly, in his ruling, Rosenberg wasn't going for subtlety:

Read the whole thing if you have the time.

How the governor responds to this ruling is unclear, now that the home has been closed, its staff has been let go and the girls who lived there are scattered. I assume the governor will appeal the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Generally, I like to see governors get a strong double shot of not so fast. This is the second time in two years that Branstad has run into a big judicial stop sign. In 2012, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the governor acted unconstitutionally when he vetoed language directing the funding of workforce development offices, and then used the money elsewhere in his budget. That case, like the juvenile home lawsuit, was brought by AFSCME President Danny Homan and a group of state lawmakers.

And Justice Thomas Waterman, another Branstad appointee, wrote the workforce development ruling. Here I thought it was a bunch of Vilsacktivist judges that were causing all the trouble.

But I have some mixed feelings about Rosenberg's ruling.

From a practical standpoint, it seems like there might be moments when moving quickly to close a state facility is the right thing to do. This seems to suggest, if the facility is funded by a legislative appropriation already signed into law, that a governor would need to call a special legislative session to seek closure.

But from a governance standpoint, I like Rosenberg's moxie. Closing the juvenile home, after 50 years of operation, is the sort of major policy decision that should be in the hands of more than one elected official and his appointee. It might be nice for the governor to make a high-profile problems go away with the wave of his hand, but that's not how our system is supposed to work. The legislative branch, despite its occasional resemblance to a stranded cruise ship, should be involved.

The juvenile home's problems, chronicled in an exhaustive Des Moines Register investigation, were severe and troubling. The governor was right to use his executive authority to convene a committee to dig into the situation. That committee made a series of solid recommendations, which didn't include a shutdown. And yet, that's what the governor decided to do. And swiftly.

Was he trying to make a high-profile problem disappear, fast? Perhaps.

It's also possible that closure is the way to go, but it never seemed like a truly solid case was made by the administration, and questions remain. We've had this facility for decades, but now it's no longer needed? With so much already invested there, wouldn't it make sense to attempt revamping its function and mission and fixing its problems? When our editorial board met with juvenile home staff and foundation members last month, they made a fairly strong case that changes and improvements were already making a big difference before the closure.

Essential Estrogen's Lynda Waddington offers up another factor:

And that raises broader questions beyond Toledo. Government facilities caring for at-risk or disabled people with higher-paid staff are facing a financial squeeze, which could end up placing care in the hands of folks making much less pay. Pay is a pretty big factor in staff stability and experience. Is this a trend we can accept? How much do we value the people who look after vulnerable people? Are we saving money now only to pay a stiffer price later?

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