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Iowa Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit challenging governor's move to shutter juvenile home


IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Supreme Court dismissed a legal challenge Friday over Gov. Terry Branstad's decision to unilaterally close a home for Iowa's most troubled girls, declining to rule on whether the action was an abuse of power.

The lawsuit seeking to reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home is moot because the Legislature cut off the home's funding last year, effectively approving Branstad's decision to close it, Justice Edward Mansfield wrote.

The 7-0 decision vacates an injunction entered by District Judge Scott Rosenberg in February 2014 that ordered the home be reopened. The governor did not have the power to close the home because lawmakers had approved funding for its operations through June 30, 2014, Rosenberg ruled, adding that the executive branch cannot ignore the law. Branstad appealed and justices stayed the injunction while they considered the case.

Friday's ruling, which dismissed a lawsuit brought by Democratic lawmakers and the head of a state workers' union, sidestepped the question of whether the Republican governor's actions were lawful.

"They didn't say whether he did anything legal or illegal, but he did get away with it," said attorney Mark Hedberg, who represented the plaintiffs.

For decades, the home on a 27-acre campus in Toledo provided housing, education and services to some of Iowa's most troubled youth. But in 2013, investigations by the Des Moines Register and a nonprofit group, Disability Rights Iowa, found that workers relied on prison-like seclusion rooms to house residents for long periods and denied them a proper education. A task force formed by the governor recommended major changes.

The Department of Human Services, which operated the home, closed it in January 2014, transferring the home's 21 residents elsewhere and laying off its 93 workers. The residents included teenage girls who were deemed delinquent and in need of assistance by courts.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said Friday's ruling leaves in place a decision made to improve the well-being and education of troubled girls, who are "being more effectively and accountably served" in privately-operated facilities. With the lawsuit resolved, he said the administration would now work with Toledo leaders to try to find a use for the campus and its empty buildings.

Democrats have argued that the closure undermined Iowa's safety net for girls who had already failed in other settings and desperately need treatment.

"I'm definitely disappointed that we didn't at least get a ruling on the lower court's decision about what the governor can do legally," said Sen. Steve Sodders, D-Marshalltown, a plaintiff.

The plaintiffs alleged the 2014 budget required the home to remain open because it set aside $8.8 million for its operation. They claimed that Branstad's decision not to spend money as approved by lawmakers violated a section of the Iowa Constitution requiring the governor to "take care that the laws are faithfully executed."

The Democratic-controlled Senate approved money last year to keep the home operating but the Republican-controlled House declined. Lawmakers ultimately passed a budget that didn't include funding for the home.

Mansfield said the Legislature's decision not to fund the home settled the dispute, rendering the lawsuit moot. Justices recognize the closure was controversial and affected residents and workers, but must respect "the two other coequal branches of government," Mansfield wrote.

"Part of that respect involves not telling them what they can and cannot do unless the answer is likely to matter in this or a future case," he said.

Branstad has recently proposed closing state-run mental hospitals in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Critics argue those closures would be illegal without legislative approval, and lawmakers are debating their future. If Branstad closes them unilaterally, Hedberg said any legal challenge wouldn't be affected by Friday's ruling.

Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey contributed from Des Moines.

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