- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 9, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday peppered lawyers with questions as they waded into the difficult issue of determining whether someone convicted of an aggravated misdemeanor should be disqualified from voting and holding public office in Iowa.

The court heard arguments in a case in which state senate primary rival Ned Chiodo is seeking to disqualify Tony Bisignano based on his conviction for second-offense drunken driving.

Both men are seeking the Democratic nomination for Des Moines-area seat to be vacated by Jack Hatch, a Democratic candidate for governor.

At issue is whether an aggravated misdemeanor falls under the Iowa Constitution’s definition of an infamous crime, which would mean Bisignano cannot vote or hold public office.

Chiodo’s attorney, Gary Dickey based his argument on a constitutional article that says a person convicted of an infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector.

The problem is the Iowa Constitution doesn’t define “infamous crime,” and courts over the last 100 years have construed it to mean anything resulting in a prison sentence. The Legislature revised the criminal code in the 1970s, requiring prison time in some circumstances for individuals convicted of aggravated misdemeanors.

Because second-offense drunken driving is an aggravated misdemeanor and that crime can lead to a prison sentence, Dickey argues that Bisignano can’t vote or run for office.

Bisignano, who served no prison time, instead was sentenced to seven days in jail and probation.

If Chiodo wins the case, he eliminates a primary opponent but in the process establishes a precedent that could mean thousands of Iowa residents charged with aggravated misdemeanors can’t vote or run for office until they get their rights restored by the governor.

That prompted Justice Thomas Waterman to ask how many voters would be disenfranchised.

Dickey responded it isn’t clear.

Attorney General Tom Miller has estimated the number could be as high as 50,000. Dickey has said it’s likely closer to 5,000.

“This court would not be disenfranchising anybody that has not already lost their rights,” Dickey argued. He contends that decision was made by the framers of the Iowa Constitution and previous court rulings.

Arguing the other side of the issue was Jeff Thompson, an assistant Iowa attorney general.

He represented a panel of three state-elected officials - Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz and State Auditor Mary Mosiman - who rejected Dickey’s argument last month.

They concluded that a 1994 law passed by the Iowa Legislature clearly defined infamous crimes as felonies. In practice, state election officials have long removed only felons from voting rolls.

Their decision, if upheld, allows Bisignano to run.

Chiodo appealed and asked for a quick hearing because ballots must be printed within the next few weeks.

The Polk County auditor has said a decision by April 15 would allow ballots to go to the printer in time to be mailed by April 18, a deadline set by the federal government for ballots to reach voters in the military serving outside the country.

Chief Justice Mark Cady called the rapid preparation for the case “extraordinary if not unprecedented but necessary for us to do.”


Follow David Pitt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/davepitt .

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