IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s Democratic attorney general has installed the Republican governor’s lawyer into a high-level job in which he is aggressively defending his former boss’ policy agenda and management decisions in court.
Weeks after joining Attorney General Tom Miller’s staff, attorney Sam Langholz has participated in cases defending Gov. Kim Reynolds’ coronavirus restrictions, her law requiring a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, her denial of overtime pay to some nurses, and her administration’s ouster of a longtime public health spokeswoman.
The hiring incensed some Democrats and trial lawyers. But it generated goodwill for Miller, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, from a sometimes adversarial GOP-controlled Legislature and Reynolds, who called Langholz “a brilliant legal mind.”
Miller and Reynolds announced Langholz’s appointment as an assistant attorney general for civil and appellate litigation in November. The attorney general’s office confirmed Tuesday that a top Miller aide, Solicitor General Jeff Thompson, designed the $140,000-per-year job and hired Langholz without posting the opening.
Thompson worked closely with Langholz during his 2 1/2-year stint as senior legal counsel to Reynolds and “knew his abilities,” said Miller spokesman Lynn Hicks.
“When we have someone of this talent and there is an opening, we hire him or her,” Hicks said, noting that Langholz was first in his 2008 University of Iowa law school class.
Langholz, a Republican loyalist who founded the Iowa chapter of the Federalist Society, could use the job to bolster his credentials if he again applies to become an Iowa Supreme Court justice after getting passed over last year.
Despite having little prior litigation experience, he’s a supervising attorney in the unit that defends the state against lawsuits and is already representing the Reynolds administration and University of Iowa in high-profile cases.
Langholz has already helped defend Reynolds’ emergency public health restrictions to fight the coronavirus against a lawsuit brought by a bar owner who argued they violated her rights.
In December, he filed a motion that argued the governor used her power and judgment to defend the “lives and livelihoods” of residents, a phrase Reynolds often uses. It portrayed the governor’s response as driven by the latest science and public health guidance.
Langholz also quickly began defending a 24-hour mandatory waiting period for abortions that Reynolds signed into law last year. A landmark 2018 Iowa Supreme Court ruling found that a previous 72-hour waiting period was unconstitutional.
He recently asked a judge to consider the law’s legality anew, saying it’s different than the 2017 statute that justices found violated women’s rights on a 5-2 vote. He noted the new waiting period is two days shorter and argued the “abortion industry” would be affected differently by the requirement today. Planned Parenthood is suing to block the law, noting it would require women to make two trips to health centers and delay abortions.
Langholz is representing the governor and her spokesman Pat Garrett in a lawsuit brought by former Department of Public Health spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm, who says she faced retaliation for releasing routine public information during the pandemic.
Carver-Kimm says she was forced to resign after releasing statistics showing Iowa abortions climbed by 25% in 2019 after Reynolds pulled Iowa out of a federal family-planning program.
Langholz is defending Reynolds against a proposed class-action lawsuit filed by registered nurses at state institutions who claim they’ve been wrongly classified as salaried employees and denied overtime pay.
He does not have conflicts of interest in those cases under Iowa’s ethical rules for attorneys because he’s representing the same client he previously advised, Hicks said.
Ethical rules will require that Langholz be disqualified from cases in which he’ll likely be a witness.
That may prevent him from participating in a wrongful termination case filed by former Department of Human Services director Jerry Foxhoven. Foxhoven has claimed that Langholz and the governor’s chief of staff fired him after Foxhoven questioned the legality of a funding arrangement.
Tensions between Miller and Reynolds, who are both up for reelection in 2022, have momentarily cooled.
In 2019, Reynolds considered a bill eliminating Miller’s power to join multistate lawsuits, after Republicans expressed anger over his decision to challenge Trump administration policies on immigration and other topics. Reynolds vetoed the bill under a deal in which Miller agreed to not join lawsuits without her approval. Since then, Reynolds has rejected dozens of Miller’s requests.
Langholz listed Thompson as a reference last year when he applied for his “dream job” on the Iowa Supreme Court. A nominating commission didn’t recommend Langholz as one of three finalists for Reynolds’ consideration, after critics said he didn’t have enough experience. Reynolds selected a different lawyer with longtime Republican ties.
Langholz will get another chance to apply next year, when the court’s sole Democratic-appointed justice, Brent Appel, faces mandatory retirement. If appointed, he could serve three decades.