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Iowa DOC May Not Switch Administrative Law Judges in Mid-Disciplinary Process

Iowa DOC May Not Switch Administrative Law Judges in Mid-Disciplinary Process

by Matt Clarke

On August 20, 2014, a federal district court held that the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) had violated a prisoner’s due process rights when it reassigned his disciplinary case to a new administrative law judge (ALJ) after learning that the originally-assigned ALJ might rule in the prisoner’s favor.

In 2010, disciplinary action was initiated against state prisoner Joe Louis Byrd, who was accused of participating in the gang rape of another prisoner. His case was assigned to long-time ALJ William Soupene. After meeting briefly with Byrd during an evidentiary hearing, Soupene continued the hearing for further investigation. He called the DOC investigator and DOC central office, requesting additional information and a credibility statement from the investigator because there did not appear to be evidence to support the rape allegation and the alleged victim did not seem credible. Soupene was told the investigation had been pending a long time and there should be sufficient evidence already available in the record. He said he would dismiss the disciplinary case unless he received a credibility statement from the DOC investigator.

Instead, Deputy Director Diane Wilder Tomlinson ordered the warden at the Anamosa State Penitentiary (ASP) to transfer the case to the ALJ at the Newton Correctional Facility. That ALJ had already found four other prisoners guilty in connection with the same alleged rape.

“I think this was an apparent miscarriage of prison justice, one of the biggest such cases that I had seen during my time working for the Department of Corrections,” Soupene stated.

After initially seeking post-conviction relief in state court pro se, Byrd filed a federal habeas corpus action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, claiming the transfer of his disciplinary case to another ALJ in mid-evidentiary hearing violated his due process rights. The federal district court agreed, rejecting the state’s argument that the case was merely transferred from one unbiased ALJ to another unbiased ALJ, which did not offend due process. The court found that the change in decision-makers in the middle of the case – after the first ALJ had started an evidentiary hearing and after the DOC saw which way it was headed – violated the due process clause. By analogy, a card player cannot re-deal the cards after he has seen and dislikes the result of the first deal, even if the second deal is random and unbiased.

The district court also rejected the DOC’s argument that it had the statutory authority to change ALJs in the middle of a disciplinary case. The transfer of the disciplinary hearing was voided and the case remanded to the ALJ at ASP, which was no longer Soupene as he had since retired. See: Byrd v. State of Iowa, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Iowa), Case No. 1:12-cv-00099-EJM.

The district court stayed its judgment pending an appeal by Byrd, who challenged the court’s decision to remand the case for another hearing rather than dismiss the disciplinary charge due to misconduct by prison officials.

On March 23, 2015, the Eighth Circuit dismissed the appeal “for lack of jurisdiction due to lack of standing.” Byrd has requested rehearing by the appellate panel, contending he in fact has standing to challenge the final judgment entered by the district court. Byrd is represented by Iowa City attorney Philip B. Mears.

The Iowa DOC had previously been criticized for improperly communicating with an ALJ in a disciplinary case involving state prisoner Randy Linderman. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.26]. A report released in February 2015 by the Office of Ombudsman found that prison officials had failed to follow their own policies in disciplinary cases, in violation of prisoners’ due process rights. The DOC disagreed with the report and refused to implement a number of recommendations made by the Ombudsman in the Linderman case.


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Related legal case

Byrd v. State of Iowa