SIOUX CITY -- With the outcomes of possibly 200 court cases thrown into question after now-retired District Judge Edward Jacobson admitted that he sometimes had lawyers write rulings for him, dozens of people are left wondering if their case was one of them.
Lawyers and legal scholars also ponder what could happen to those cases, pending the findings of an independent review of Jacobson's actions to determine the extent Jacobson may have had private communications with attorneys to write rulings for him to sign.
It's a situation none have ever really considered before because there are few examples of it in Iowa's recent judicial history.
"To me, it's been unheard of that a judge would do this. It creates the appearance this judge was not independently thinking," said Iowa State Bar Association president Steve Eckley, a Des Moines attorney who's been practicing for 35 years.
Jacobson, who retired last fall, told lawyers in a deposition taken in a Plymouth County divorce case that he had directed attorneys in approximately 200 cases during his 16-year judicial career to write the final ruling without notifying the opposing attorney.
"I don't have any problem telling one counsel to do it without telling the other counsel I told them to do it," Jacobson said in the deposition.
Because of Jacobson's actions, one of the lawyers in the divorce case is seeking to have the final decree set aside. In Jacobson's deposition, submitted as an exhibit in the case last month, he said he asked an attorney no longer involved in the case to draft the final decree because he intended to rule in favor of her client. The attorney for the other party was not contacted, nor was she given a chance to review the decree before Jacobson signed it.
It's not uncommon for judges to request proposed orders from attorneys, so long as both sides are aware of it and have a chance to review them. In those cases, the judge is also expected to craft his or her own ruling rather than use a submitted order. A so-called ghost-written ruling raises concerns about a judge's impartiality.
It also raises the question of what happens to the ruling filed in those cases. Could those rulings be set aside? Appealed?
"This is all very speculative because this is such a unique situation," said Paul Gowder, a professor who teaches constitutional law at the University of Iowa College of Law. "A fundamental perception in the American legal system is you're entitled to an impartial judge. One of the questions is, how much evidence of bias or how much evidence of disadvantage is going to need to be presented to set aside a ruling?"
A court reviewing such a case, Gowder said, would have to determine if either party was harmed by a ruling proven to be ghost written and whether that ruling reached a conclusion different than one Jacobson might have made on his own.
A clue as to how the cases might be decided could come in August, when a trial in the Plymouth County divorce case is scheduled to take up the issue of setting aside the decree. If Jacobson's ruling were ultimately set aside, it could set a precedent for judges to follow if and when any of Jacobson's other rulings are challenged.
Any other existing standards also may be applicable for setting aside a decision based on judicial bias, Gowder said.
Those standards have rarely been needed. In a reminder last month to the state's judges that they are not to privately solicit prepared orders from attorneys without notifying the opposing side, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady referred to single cases in 1984 and in 2010 in which an Iowa judge issued a ghost-written order or had ex parte communications with only one of the attorneys.
Hinton, Iowa, attorney Rosanne Plante is eagerly awaiting the findings of the two-person panel appointed last month by state court administrator Todd Nuccio. The panel has the authority to review Jacobson's incoming and outgoing emails to determine the nature and extent of possible ghost writing and ex parte communications.
Plante is interested to see if any findings show whether a disputed child custody case in which she represented the mother is one of the 200 or so in question. She believes it might be, but as of now has no proof.
"I do not know if my case is one of them," Plante said. "I suspect it. We're still investigating."
Jacobson ruled against Plante's client, and she appealed the decision, which was upheld earlier this year by the Iowa Court of Appeals. Last April, Plante filed a complaint with the Iowa Judicial Qualifications Commission, alleging judicial misconduct against Jacobson for trial behavior Plante said was unprofessional. The commission last summer ruled that it found no misconduct, Plante said. Complaints and commission findings are sealed from the public unless the case is referred to the Supreme Court for action to be taken against the judge.
When news broke in early March about Jacobson's deposition testimony, Plante said she again sought action, thinking that her case may be one of those Jacobson referred to.
"These rulings have far-reaching effects on people and their families," she said.
On March 21, Plante traveled to Des Moines, where she met with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, chief deputy Eric Tabor and assistant attorney general Emily Willits.
"My plea to Mr. Miller was we need help," Plante said. "We need help from Des Moines."
Attorney general spokesman Lynn Hicks said the office's jurisdiction is limited, and the office is not currently investigating Jacobson.
That could change, depending on the review by the independent panel, which by June 2 must file a report that will be released to the public.
"We're just letting that play out," Hicks said.
Plante will, too, while she and her co-counsel explore different avenues for appealing her client's custody case.
In future cases, Plante said she will ask additional questions in court proceedings to make sure the record is clear when a judge asks for proposed orders.
Such actions could help ensure confidence that judges are giving both sides a fair hearing.
Eckley said he hopes the recent revelations have not caused Iowans to lose faith in the justice system.
"It's disappointing to think something like this would lead people to get the impression that other judges might not be independent or are biased," Eckley said. "I would hope the public takes away that this was a single judge acting in a way not indicative of other judges in Iowa."
SIOUX CITY -- On a night when 32 young men drafted by teams from the National Football League saw their lives changed in an instant, a similar scenario played out at the Sioux City Country Club.
And the emotional reaction was also similar as Nathan Keokenchanh-Canoles, a South Sioux City High School senior, and football player, incidentally, wiped away tears as he walked to the podium to accept a $40,000 scholarship as winner of the Distinguished Scholar Award presented by Marcia Waitt of the Kind World Foundation.
"This is the 10th year we've done this," Waitt said, "and it never gets old."
In the past decade, the Kind World Foundation, founded by Waitt's brother, Norm Waitt Jr., working in conjunction with dozens of local benefactors, has awarded in excess of $2 million to hundreds of high school seniors from eight metro schools; West, North, East, Bishop Heelan, South Sioux City, Dakota Valley, Sergeant Bluff-Luton and Elk Point-Jefferson. The Kind World Foundation took the lead for this scholarship effort in 2009, taking the baton from the Waitt Foundation.
Thirty-four students earned awards on Thursday. Each student, clad in formal attire, ties for the young men, dresses for the young women, rose after the dinner, strode to the podium and confidently detailed their lengthy list of school activities while lauding the Kind World Foundation, local sponsors, and the teachers, parents/guardians who helped them reach this point.
They were debate team members, track participants, football players, singers and more, all of them possessing sterling grade-point averages and visions of making the world a better place via roles in pharmacy, engineering, medicine, education, criminal justice and more.
'Twas a night to celebrate, not unlike the NFL draft. 'Twas a night to reflect, as well, and a time to shed a few well-earned tears.
"Coming into this, I didn't get my hopes up because there are so many good seniors here," said Keokenchanh-Canoles, a multi-sport athlete at South Sioux City High. "But when the announcement came and I heard my name, I got emotional."
After a pause, the 18-year-old dabbed at his eyes, cleared his throat and said, "I have worked so hard for this."
The Distinguished Scholar award is a $40,000 gift, providing the future University of South Dakota science major a $10,000 boost in each of the next four years. By the end of that period, he said, he hopes to gain acceptance into a physical therapy school.
South Sioux City High School physical education teacher and strength-and-conditioning coach Tyler Slate gave his student a long embrace after the announcement. "If there's one deserving student for this award, it's him," Slate said, nodding in the direction of Keokenchanh-Canoles, who has a grade-point average of 3.9. "He's got the will, he's got the drive. I found him to be inspirational."
The son of Misty Canoles, of Utah, and Vixay Keokenchanh, of Sioux City, could have relocated from here to Utah with his mother more than two years ago. Instead, Keokenchanh-Canoles opted to stay and reside with his grandparents, Walter and Leo Canoles, in South Sioux City. His grandmother was positively beaming at the development following the banquet, knowing her grandson's college aspirations had just become that much more attainable.
"I'm letting his mother know right now," Lea Canoles said as she fired off a text message. "What makes Nathan great is that I've never had to worry about him. He's never given us any problem. He always lets us know where he is and what he's doing."
He's often doing something with his uncle, A.J. Canoles, a diesel mechanic who resides in Sioux City. Keokenchanh-Canoles was sure to single out A.J. during his talk, noting it was A.J.'s time, dedication and patience that helped Nathan arrive at this juncture.
"A.J. has been a positive influence," he said. "A.J. taught me right from wrong and how to be respectful."
A.J. Canoles smiled and shrugged, saying how he took young Nathan under his wing as he started youth football. A.J. stepped in to help coach. Together, they learned more about the game and spent Sundays together watching their team, the San Diego Chargers.
"In sixth grade, Nathan wrote a paper about his hero and it was A.J.," said Lea Canoles. "A.J. is his go-to guy."
"He's the little brother I never had," A.J. Canoles added.
Nathan Keokenchanh-Canoles ended up earning all-district football laurels in high school while playing defensive back and quarterback for the Cardinals. He also wrestled two years, ran track last spring, and played baseball until giving it up this year due to a knee injury. He'd like to give football a try at USD as a walk-on.
"USD is close and that's good," A.J. said, hinting at a punch-line. "Because Nathan's got to come back every two weeks to give me a haircut!"
Slate, who toils as Nathan's mentor through the Teammate program founded by Tom Osborne, former Nebraska Cornhuskers head football coach, said he accompanied the Cardinal senior on his visit to USD and came away thrilled for his student.
"I took him on his campus visit and it was so rewarding for me," Slate said. "He's like the younger brother I didn't have."
Marcia Waitt and Norm Waitt Jr. hailed all 34 recipients and the finalists, eight of whom completed interviews on Tuesday to determine the top two awards. Kelly Vu, a senior at West heading to the University of Iowa, earned a $20,000 scholarship as runner-up. All other recipients earned anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.
"For those of you who have never been to our banquet, this is the fun part," Marcia Waitt said, setting up her announcement of the top two winners. "It's all fun."
"You people are amazing," Norm Waitt added. "I read some of these stories and they just choke me up."
And so it was, on a mild April evening at the Sioux City Country Club; a night of tears, the best kind, for 34 young men and women who, through work and sacrifice, and by the grace of those around them, have and will strive to make this a better, kinder world.
SIOUX CITY -- Assessing how President Donald Trump has fared as he nears the one-third mark of a four-year term, U.S. Rep. Steve King said the fellow Republican sits at a nine on a 10-point scale.
King said he likes how Trump has framed the national discourse on key issues, and shown the ability to change direction with a single tweet.
"My answer is going to incorporate tax cuts and foreign policy and economic growth and the negotiations, the way he has dealt with domestic enforcement of immigration, (getting) his public message out there, what he has done to the tone and culture of America... I would give him a nine," King said in an interview this week.
"I don't usually think about things like that, but that is my process -- I give him a nine."
In a Fox News interview Thursday, Trump rated himself with the highest grade possible, saying, "I would give myself an A-plus. Nobody has done what I've been able to do, and I did it despite the fact that I have a phony cloud over my head that doesn't exist.”
The few down spots for the president, King said, comes with his proposal to raise tariffs on steel and by not sweeping aside the Obama-era initiative of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. King also lamented that a border wall with Mexico, a key immigration piece the congressman has long pushed, hasn't advanced.
King said Trump is an "enigma" who understands it is best to keep opponents and others guessing what he will do, which makes for a great way to negotiate with foreign leaders. The congressman contrasted the Trump approach with that of prior Democratic President Barack Obama, who he said gave away key moves the U.S. would take.
"I have been calling for a president who is successful at brinksmanship," King said.
"It is the geo-political chess game of, who is going to blink, who is going to blink first? You know, is he bluffing or isn't he? I don't think people have him figured out enough to know, ever, if he is bluffing or if it is real. And that is because he couples that with being an enigma. There is not a consistent ideological core that, that tells us what he is going to do."
King said the way Trump has messaged about North Korea is a prime example. Trump wants to stop Kim Jong-Un from developing nuclear weapons capability, and a mid-April military missile strike in Syria should be sobering to the North Korean leader, King said.
"Kim is wondering, well, what about, does Americas have enough guts to go nuclear on him," he said.
King said Trump helped move a tax cut plan that has become his all-time favorite vote. That change enacted in December was the most substantial change to the federal tax code in 30 years. It drops the personal income tax rates for most of the seven tax brackets, lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and repeals the corporate alternative minimum tax.
King, who represents the Iowa 4th congressional district while living in Kiron, was first elected in 2002. He is running for re-election in 2018, and has a combined five opponents from the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian party.