Supreme Court Day Award Briefs

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Each year, outstanding advocates in the Law School compete in the Supreme Court Competition for the honor of presenting final arguments to the Iowa Supreme Court. The student who submits the best brief wins the M. Gene Blackburn Award, named for a professor (and 1955 Drake Law graduate) in recognition of his dedication to the development of appellate advocacy. The recipient is chosen on the basis of superior writing skills that communicate an issue position based upon an innovative, creative, and concise approach. The award includes a cash prize, funded by the Cedar Rapids, Iowa law firm of Simmons Perrine Moyer & Bergmann.

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Recent Submissions

Now showing 1 - 5 of 6
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    State of Iowa vs. Sam Craft, Brief for the Appellant
    (2023) Boyer, Elizabeth
    2023 Supreme Court Competition Problem: Sam Craft lives in a small home on Birch Street in Eldora, Iowa. Craft owns the home and is its sole occupant. The back yard is surrounded by a fence. The front yard is unfenced. There are four other houses on Birch Street, which is a short dead-end side street. Birch Street connects onto Main Street, between a grocery store and a small church. In early 2020, DCI Special Agent Trails suspected that there was some activity related to fentanyl trafficking at Craft’s residence. She obtained permission from the city to install a small digital video camera on a telephone pole just across the street from Craft’s residence. Throughout 2021, the camera was active and pointed at the front of Craft’s house. Agent Trails monitored the feed. She could also review footage, after the fact. She was able to zoom in to get enough detail to see license plate numbers or facial expressions. But most of the time, the camera was zoomed out to capture a wider shot of the exterior of Craft’s home. No part of the interior of Craft’s home is visible in any of the footage that Agent Trails used. In March 2022, Special Agent Trails applied for a warrant to search Craft’s home. In her search warrant application, she relied on that video footage to establish a pattern of what looked like mid-level drug distribution activity: regular visits by known users and low-level dealers, and bi-weekly visits from a subject with no other known connection to Eldora, who drove a different rental vehicle on each visit to Craft’s residence. A magistrate found probable cause to issue the search warrant. Agents found a large quantity of fentanyl in his home, and evidence that would help prove an ongoing intent to distribute it (including drug ledgers, scales, and packaging supplies). Craft was charged with possession of fentanyl with intent to deliver. Craft moved to suppress all the evidence discovered during the search of his home. He argued that the search warrant was issued based on evidence that was obtained through a warrantless search that violated Craft’s rights under the Fourth Amendment. The State argued that warrantless visual surveillance of the area surrounding a home does not constitute a search. The State argued that any subjective expectation of privacy in activities that occur in public view—just outside of Craft’s residence—would never be objectively reasonable. And if there’s no expectation of privacy, the State is free to view and record that activity. The District Court granted Craft’s Motion to Suppress. It acknowledged that the unfenced front yard of Craft’s home was open to public view. But it held that surreptitious, continuous surveillance of the front of a private home for an entire year is unreasonably invasive and violates a reasonable expectation of privacy—even if widespread availability of new technology makes it easy to do. So it ruled that using the pole camera was a search that violated the Fourth Amendment, and it suppressed all of the evidence found through the search warrant. The State appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court retained the appeal. The State must convince the Justices that the district court was incorrect, and using this pole camera was not a search. Craft must convince the Justices that the district court got it right, and that this as a search. This is a novel, complex, and difficult issue—but our intrepid finalists are up to the task!
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    State of Iowa vs. Ronnie Dobbs, Brief for the Appellant (2022)
    (2022) Lee, Steffi
    2022 Supreme Court Competition Problem: The Iowa legislature recently created a new requirement for Iowans who are required to register as sex offenders. Iowa Code section 692A.201(1) requires any registered sex offender to get a special driver's license (or non-driving ID) that includes a label, in orange capital letters: "SEX OFFENDER". Section 692A.201(2) makes it a crime to alter or deface that special ID card, with the intent to defraud. Ronnie Dobbs is a Tier III sex offender. He registered, and he went to the Story County Sheriff’s Office to verify his registration information (as he is required to do, thrice a year.) In July 2021, after this new law had just passed, Dobbs was told that he needed the special ID. He got a new driver’s license. But during his next visit, Story County discovered that he had altered that new license by scratching out the “SEX OFFENDER” mark (or so the State has alleged). Dobbs was charged with violating section 692A.201(2). Dobbs moved to dismiss the charge, on the grounds that section 692A.201 violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech. The State resisted. But the district court agreed with Dobbs that the branded ID card was an attempt to force Dobbs to carry and display the State's message about him, and it granted Dobbs's motion to dismiss. The State appealed, and the Iowa Supreme Court retained the appeal to determine whether section 692A.201 violates the First Amendment. Generally, when the government speaks on its own behalf, it may choose what it says. So, if this is government speech (and not compelled private speech), then it is probably constitutional. If it is compelled private speech, then the State has to show that this law withstands strict scrutiny, which means the measure must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. That is a tough standard to satisfy -- but it's not impossible, and some compelled disclosures have withstood strict scrutiny before. It is up to the students to try to convince this Court to adopt their view of whether this is government speech or compelled private speech, and (if it does burden a constitutional right) whether it would withstand that exacting level of scrutiny.
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    State of Iowa vs. Ronnie Dobbs, Brief for Appellant
    (2021) Brundage, Logan
    2021 Supreme Court Competition Problem: One fateful night, Ronnie Dobbs was playing music very loud and honking the horn of his car for no apparent reason. Iowa State Patrol Trooper Terry Twillstein was nearby, and he had reasonable suspicion and probable cause to believe that Dobbs was violating a local noise ordinance. Trooper Twillstein followed Dobbs and caught up to him. When Trooper Twillstein’s car was directly behind Dobbs’ vehicle, he turned on his overhead lights and his siren to initiate a traffic stop. But Dobbs did not stop—instead, he turned onto a driveway, drove up, and parked in a garage. Trooper Twillstein saw the garage begin to close as soon as Dobbs’ vehicle was inside—so he jumped out of his vehicle, ran to the garage door, and put his foot in front of the sensor to stop the door from closing. Then, Trooper Twillstein walked into the garage to talk to Dobbs. Upon speaking with Dobbs, Trooper Twillstein observed that Dobbs was drunk and arrested him. Dobbs was charged with Operating While Intoxicated (third offense). Dobbs seems to have committed two misdemeanors, in addition to the noise ordinance violation: eluding and interference with official acts. Under Iowa law, Trooper Twillstein was authorized to arrest Dobbs for committing any misdemeanor offense in his presence. But by following Dobbs into his garage as Dobbs fled from him, Trooper Twillstein made a warrantless entry into the protected area of Dobbs’ home (the “curtilage”). That would violate both the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution—unless that warrantless entry was “reasonable” in a constitutional sense. The State argues that this fits within the exception for warrantless entry in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing offender. Dobbs argues that these facts do not establish the kind of exigency that would be required to invoke the “hot pursuit” exception to the warrant requirement. A very similar case is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court right now: Lange v. California. But Lange only involved a Fourth Amendment claim. This case involves a Fourth Amendment claim, but it also involves a challenge under Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution. The Iowa Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on what the Iowa Constitution allows, and what it forbids. Our competitors will have to advance their most persuasive vision for how to read and apply each of these constitutional provisions, how to balance the complex array of competing interests involved, and how to craft a fair and practical rule that Iowa courts can apply to resolve future cases. The two questions before the Supreme Court are: 1. Did Trooper Twillstein’s entry into Dobbs’ garage—while in “hot pursuit” of a person who had committed a misdemeanor eluding offense—violate the Fourth Amendment? 2. Did Trooper Twillstein’s entry into Dobbs’ garage—while in “hot pursuit” of a person who had committed a misdemeanor eluding offense—violate Article I, Section 8 of the Iowa Constitution?
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    City of Davenport v. Martin, Brief for the Appellee (Martin et. al.)
    (2020) Hughes, Josh
    2020 Supreme Court Celebration Competition Problem: The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution does the same. Litigants usually invoke those constitutional provisions to challenge the method of punishment or the severity of punishment. But there is a third type of challenge, which is very rare: a claim that the government is prosecuting someone and imposing punishment for something that these constitutional provisions will not allow it to punish at all. The seminal case on this is Robinson v. California, where the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a California penal statute that defined a crime in a way that violated the Eighth Amendment: it made it a crime to be addicted to narcotics. The U.S. Supreme Court held that buying narcotics, possessing narcotics, and selling narcotics were all acts, and there's no constitutional problem with criminalizing and punishing conduct. But being an addict is a status, and it would be cruel and unusual punishment to impose any amount of punishment for simply existing (especially when a person may have come by their status as an addict through lawful use of prescription drugs, or simply by being born to a mother suffering from a similar addiction). However, in Powell v. Texas, a fractured court held that it did not violate the Eighth Amendment for Texas to criminalize public intoxication, even as applied to an alcoholic who claimed that he was compelled to get drunk and then had no control over where he went after that. A concurrence by Justice White suggested that, if Powell had been homeless, then this would be a stronger constitutional challenge: for a homeless person, this law would criminalize being drunk, which would threaten to run afoul of Robinson (although it would still be different from criminalizing the status of being an alcoholic, which would clearly be unconstitutional). Which brings us to Davenport, Iowa, where city ordinances prohibit folks from sleeping or camping in public spaces. Violations are punishable as simple misdemeanor offenses; usually, this means a citation or arrest, and then a small fine and/or a sentence to time served. A group of individuals is challenging those ordinances as unconstitutional, arguing that they violate both the Eighth Amendment and Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. The argument is that, as applied to folks who cannot find shelter, the ordinances criminalize the status of homelessness, just like Robinson criminalized the status of addiction. While there are homeless shelters in the Davenport area, they are often full (and some of them have religious affiliations or other rules that make them unavailable to certain people). The Iowa district court determined that these ordinances were criminalizing conduct, not status, so it granted the City's motion for summary judgment. But the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with orders to grant the plaintiff's cross-motion and to enjoin the City from enforcing these ordinances against anyone without their own options for shelter at any moment when there is no available bed space in a local homeless shelter. The City applied for further review before the Iowa Supreme Court, which granted review. To resolve this case, the Iowa Supreme Court must decide whether it violates the Eighth Amendment to criminalize sleeping or camping in public when a person is homeless. Is this conduct, which a local government can criminalize? Or is this the status of homelessness, which cannot be criminalized? Or is it both status and conduct, somehow intertwined? What then? What does the fractured opinion in Powell v. Texas really stand for? And then, after answering all of those questions by applying federal law that interprets the Eighth Amendment, the Iowa Supreme Court must step back and ask: is all of that analysis equally valid and persuasive in applying Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution? Is any of it? What other criminal laws in Iowa will become unenforceable if the plaintiffs prevail? What other status-adjacent conduct could be criminalized in Iowa, if the City prevails? And does either result actually help alleviate the pressing problem of homelessness?
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    Sioux County Parks Commission v. American Humanist Association, Brief for Appellant (Sioux County Parks Commission)
    (2019) O’Brien, Jackson
    2019 Supreme Court Celebration Competition Problem: A 40-foot tall monument has stood (and still stands) in the median of an intersection in a small Iowa town, since its completion in 1925. It memorializes local residents who died in combat in World War I. The Sioux County Parks Commission now owns the land and maintains the monument, which is in proximity to other war memorial monuments and serves as a venue for the county’s Memorial Day and Veterans Day events. County resources have been used to maintain and light the “Peace Cross,” including $100,000 recently budgeted to repair and restore the cross itself. The plaintiffs allege that ownership, maintenance, and display of the Peace Cross monument on public property is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause, which says Congress, states, and local governments “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Under the Lemon test, government action survives this type of challenge if it is driven by a secular purpose (at least in part), has a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion or any particular sect, and does not excessively entangle the government with religion. The District Court found that the Peace Cross monument passed this test, but a majority of judges on the Court of Appeals disagreed. Beyond that clash, there are concerns that Lemon does not provide useful guidance in cases involving monuments—like Van Orden, which applied “legal judgment” and relied on history and tradition to uphold the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on state capitol grounds. Of course, various judges to rule on this claim also disagreed on whether it passed the Van Orden test. The two questions before the Supreme Court are: (1) When faced with a claim that a monument or display violates the Establishment Clause, should courts apply the Lemon test, or should they apply Van Orden—or something else entirely? (2) Does this Peace Cross monument survive the applicable test? Does it violate the Establishment Clause for the Sioux County Parks Commission to own and maintain this 40-foot cross, as a war memorial for local residents who fought in World War I?