The courthouse bell tolls

Civic Skinny


Gov. Terry Branstad must have felt blind-sided.         

There he was, sitting in the well of the chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives when Chief Justice Mark Cady started his annual State of the Judiciary speech to the joint session of the Legislature.

The Chief is not a shouter. He started off, in that quiet voice, talking a bit about the bromides of his mother when he was growing up in Fort Dodge and the exploits of his big brother, who was always trying scientific experiments — a curiosity that ultimately led to his brother’s making the world a better place.

Then he talked a bit about the court system, about how it treats people the way his mom taught the family to treat people. He talked about technology, about costs, about expertise and about addressing the needs of Iowans and the court’s efforts to keep Iowans out of prison. And he talked, especially, about the court’s first priority: “to protect all of Iowa’s children.”

He mentioned, in a low-key way, the tremendous success that the court system has had in dealing with juveniles, in bringing them back into society instead of sending them off into jail. He cited facts and figures. He got kind of emotional about that.

And then, all of a sudden, his voice firmed up and he was talking about money.

“Problems are beginning to emerge,” the Chief said. “Iowans have begun to experience a disruption in court services….Our successes cannot be maintained….Delays will return….Efficiencies may follow….Specialty courts may be eliminated…Our troubled youth will see less of our juvenile court officers….Part-time hours may return for courthouses….It means less opportunity for Iowa’s children.”

By now, the legislators and the Governor must have felt a bit uncomfortable — at least they should have. For just the day before, the Governor had proposed cutting the judiciary’s budget by about 4 percent.

Now “is the time to build the future with an investment that affirms the work of the judicial branch, and affirms the lives of families, children, business owners, employees, and all Iowans,” Cady said as the Governor sat stone-faced. “It is the time to build a future united by one will to achieve success for all.”

And then, it was back to Mom. “What we have learned from the past is that there is a spirit for justice in each of us,” he said. “It is a spirit seen across the state. It is a spirit that has brought us this far. It is a spirit that is ready to take us ever further.

“So, for whom does the bell toll?”

“It tolls for thee.”

And that was that. No histrionics, no dollars and cents. Just a warning that the bell is tolling.

And it is. The judiciary’s budget is about $181 million. The Governor’s proposed cut is $7.7 million this year. That would be a disaster for the state and, especially, its troubled young people. Indeed, Cady says the system needs another $12 million to keep courthouses open in all 99 counties, to operate the technical system that is the envy of judges and lawyers in other states, and to give judges a 5 percent pay increase — their first raise in nine years.

Court officials make a strong case that the system is almost self-supporting. It collects $153 million in fines and fees each year, and it saves about $20 million by steering young offenders away from prisons and into counseling and treatment.

In fact, the state’s judiciary is as efficient in handling dollars as it is effective in dealing with people. So you have to wonder: What’s the better investment: A few million for the courts — and the state’s children — or $100 million to subsidize a fertilizer plant? A few million for the judges —or $1 million to help a wealthy company move from West Des Moines to Waukee? A few million to keep county courthouses open or millions to subsidize a new convention hotel in downtown Des Moines?

It would be nice if the Governor pondered those questions before heading off to China.


The rise and fall of Kent Sorenson

Kent Sorenson did not exactly have the resume of a guy who would become a state legislator and sought-after political operative, a guy who many Republicans thought could rise to the top of Iowa politics.

By the time he got into politics, he had been a high-school dropout, had filed for bankruptcy, had been convicted of delivery of marijuana and been sentenced to jail, had been convicted of defaulting on car-loan payments and had unpaid federal income taxes for three different years. Along the way, too, he had dabbled in several businesses and dropped out of Bible college.

And yet, in 2008 — the year Iowans voted for Barack Obama —  the little-known Sorenson came out of the far right and almost on a whim, he says, challenged incumbent Democrat Mark Davitt for an Iowa House seat from Warren County. Sorenson won by 163 votes out of more than 17,000 cast.

In office, he became the darling of the evangelicals and home-schoolers and moved ever further right. He assailed the Iowa Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision, embraced the far-right views of Bob Vander Plaats and Steve Deace (“nobody —and I mean nobody — did more to fight for liberty and morality in my state legislature than Sorenson did,” Deace wrote after Sorenson’s troubles mounted) and had the cheek as a freshman legislator to write an open letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley accusing the conservative Republican Senator of being too liberal.

He seemed unstoppable. In 2010, he overwhelmed incumbent Democratic state senator Staci Appel, and soon “everybody thought I was the next guy in Iowa to rise up and run for higher office. I had all kinds of people coming to me and wanting to do stuff.”

But he never finished his first term in the Senate. That quote about being “the next guy” came from a deposition he gave in October of 2013 after he quit the Legislature following charges that he had sold his name and his fame to the highest bidder among Republicans vying in the Iowa caucuses in 2012.

Sorenson, now 44, denied everything at first. “I was never offered money by the Ron Paul campaign and never would accept any,” he said. But he was lying.

In the summer of 2014, he pled guilty in federal court to two felony charges — willfully causing false reports of federal campaign expenditures and falsifying records intending to obstruct justice in relation to a federal investigation. It turns out he had been paid initially by the Michele Bachmann campaign and then, for more money, had switched his support to Paul. He hid the payments because taking them violates the Iowa Senate Code of Ethics.

Sentencing was delayed for almost three years as he cooperated with federal prosecutors looking into the Bachmann and Paul campaigns, but the day of reckoning finally came the other day when Senior Federal Judge Robert Pratt sent him to prison for 15 months.

If Sorenson’s performance is one for the civics books, so is Pratt’s. In a 22-page sentencing memorandum, the judge explained how he arrived at the sentence — prosecutors as well as Sorenson’s lawyer asked the judge to ignore federal guidelines and not send Sorenson to prison — and then he wrote about freedom and corruption and democracy and the need to send corrupt public officials to prison.

“Political corruption is a unique and infectious transgression with rippling and intractable societal consequences,” he wrote. He quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as saying “there can be no crime more serious than bribery.” The corrupt official is “worse than the thief,” Roosevelt said, “for the thief robs the individual while the corrupt official plunders an entire city or state. He is as wicked as the murderer, for the murderer may only take one life while the corrupt official and the man who corrupts the official alike aim at the assassination of the commonwealth itself.”

Granting probation to Sorenson would “erode, if only by an increment, America’s foundational, utter rejection of tolerance for corrupt governance,” Pratt wrote.

The judge said Sorenson “has damaged the political morale of his constituency, of all Iowans, and of all Americans.” He quoted Justice Louis Brandeis as noting that the deviant acts of the corrupt public official are of course horrific, “but a hundred times worse is the demoralization of our people which results.”

The sentencing took an hour. When it was all over, Pratt asked the once voluble Sorenson if he had any questions.

“The defendant: No.”

— By Michael Gartner