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Iowa court upholds 2019 law on documents filed in appeals

April 16, 2021 GMT

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A divided Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld a portion of a 2019 law that prohibits people seeking an appeal of their criminal conviction from filing documents on their own when they’re represented by an attorney.

The case centered on an appeal filed by John Lee Hrbek, who is serving a life prison sentence after being convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Kate Fisher and her son Stanley Fisher near Council Bluffs in September 1981.

Hrbek has filed numerous appeals and has been active in filing documents along with his attorneys, but a judge ordered him to stop.

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In the 2019 law, the legislature barred clients from filing documents if they’re represented by a lawyer on appeal. Hrbek challenged it as an unconstitutional violation of the separation-of-powers doctrine.

Four justices, relying on a case decided earlier this year, said the legislature has a constitutional prerogative to establish a general system of practice in all Iowa courts as long as restrictions don’t impede basic court functions.

Justice Christopher McDonald wrote the majority opinion joined by Thomas Waterman, Edward Mansfield, and Dana Oxley. The court ordered the clerk to strike Hrbek’s briefs from the case and allow his appeal to continue without him filing documents directly.

Justice Matthew McDermott filed a dissenting opinion joined by Susan Christensen and Brent Appel that said he would strike down that section of the law as a violation of the separation of powers.

“Once a case is before the court, the legislature doesn’t have the power to control the arguments the parties may make, just as it doesn’t have the power to control what courts may use, or consider, in arriving at their decisions,” he wrote.