Philip Mears obtained his law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1977, having graduated from Grinnell College in 1971. He has practiced law in Iowa City since he graduated from law school and has been in his current location, the Paul-Helen Building, since 1981. When he first moved into the building, he shared a floor with a tattoo parlor and a Transcendental Meditation center. Since then, the floor has “progressed”: now it is shared with psychologists.
Mr. Mears’ practice has evolved over the last thirty-six years. When he first started out, his practice was a general one including employment law, juvenile law, and even an occasional divorce.
Work on Behalf of Prisoners
In his first week of practice in 1977 Mr. Mears visited the Anamosa State Reformatory (now called Anamosa State Penitentiary). He had been appointed to represent a defendant on appeal, who had been convicted of first-degree murder. In 1978, in that case, he appeared for the first time before the Iowa Supreme Court.
That case began a lifelong career of representing individuals in prison. The 1980s saw a significant amount of prisoner representation, particularly of people complaining about prison discipline that had resulted in time in solitary confinement and extensions of sentences. This work involved practice in both state and federal court, both before the district courts and on appeal. A good portion of the law with regard to prison discipline in Iowa was made in cases involving Philip Mears. Some were wins, and many were losses. A long-term practice representing prisoners leads a lawyer to have lower expectations.
Most of that prisoner work was handled on a court-appointed basis. It should be noted that as of 1981 Mr. Mears was paid $60/hour for that appointed work, about one-half of the rate for private lawyers. The rate from the State stayed the same for about 15 years. Then it was reduced by 25%. Today, in Iowa state courts, the rate for lawyers who take court appointed cases has risen to the $60/hour which was the rate in 1981. Now lawyers taking private cases earn 3 to 4 times that rate.
In the mid 1990s, the Iowa Legislature eliminated the right to appointed counsel for prison discipline cases. Prisoners were no longer able to challenge unfair discipline unless they could pay for a lawyer. The practice evolved.
For over twenty years Mr. Mears represented prisoners in civil rights cases complaining about their conditions of confinement. There were cases about overcrowding, restrictions on reading material, and even the right to marry.
One of the most important cases during that time was a class action challenge to the practice at the Fort Madison Penitentiary of locking up prisoners in solitary confinement for years at a time. The case was Goff v. Harper, 272 F.3d 1114 (8th Cir.2001). It was not surprising that many of those subjected to long term lockup were mentally ill. In 1998, federal Judge Donald O’Brien declared the practice barbaric. As part of the relief obtained to remedy the many constitutional violations, the Iowa Department of Corrections built a $20 million dollar Special Needs Unit at the Fort Madison prison.
Another important case was Sanford v. Manternach, 601 N.W.2d 360, Iowa, October 13, 1999. In that case the Iowa Supreme Court made clear that there was a due process protected interest for Iowa prisoners in prison discipline cases. While most people thought that this had been established in the 1970s by the United States Supreme Court, intervening Eighth Circuit Appeal cases had called it into question. The Sanford case seemed to have settled the question.
Two important cases involving prison discipline were Freitas v. Auger, 837 F.2d 806, (8th Cir.1988)and Rinehart v. Brewer, 483 F.Supp. 165 (S.D.Iowa, 1980). Those two federal cases established procedural protection to inmates in prison faced with being disciplined based on confidential information. Those were always difficult cases because inmates would be disciplined and told they were not going to be able to be give any of the details because that information was… confidential.
Work on behalf of sex offenders
During the mid 1990’s the legislature began to increase punishments for defendants who had committed sex offenses. While it is hard to imagine today, prior to about 1990, the Department of Corrections had only a limited sex offender treatment program. Moreover, before 1995, there was no requirement of Sex Offender Registration.
Since these legislative changes, Mr. Mears has developed a practice on behalf of individuals with sexual offense convictions. Indeed, at this point in his practice, a significant portion of his work is on behalf of individuals who are sex offenders. That work includes working with the sex offender registry, sex offender treatment in prison, or individuals complaining about convictions in general.
Appeals for sex offenders have involved challenges to the way the Department of Corrections imposes treatment or calculates the very prison sentence. In Dykstra v. Iowa Dist. Court for Jones County,783 N.W.2d 473 (Iowa, 2010) the Iowa Supreme Court recognized the right to have a hearing before you were classified as a sex offender. Mr. Dykstra had not been serving a sex offense, but the DOC was insisting on sex offender treatment. In Kolzow v. State, 813 N.W.2d 731 (Iowa, 2012) the Iowa Supreme Court required the DOC to count certain jail credit towards the period of revocation from a sex offender’s special sentence. In State v. Iowa Dist. Court for Henry County, 759 N.W.2d 793 (Iowa, 2009) the Iowa Supreme Court refused to let the DOC apply new rules regarding sex offenders to inmates who were already in prison when the rules changed.
Prisoner representation has often included work with clients who are directly challenging their convictions or sentences. This is often done in an appeal, either in the state court system or in federal court.
Some cases stand out in reflection on thirty-six years of appellate practice. In Swartz v. State, 506 N.W.2d 792, (Iowa App.1993) the Iowa Court of appeals granted postconviction relief because the prosecutor did not tell the defendant about the deal that had been made with an important prosecution witness. In Reed v. Thalacker, 198 F.3d 1058( 8th Cir.1999) the Eighth Circuit federal appeal court granted habeus relief because the trial court had improperly admitted out of court statements made by a small child. Finally in Stamper vs. State, 2002 WL 571409 (2002) the Iowa Court of Appeals granted postconviction in a serious sex offense case, where newly discovered evidence was obtained and presented to the court.
In one non prisoner case, in 1978, C.R. v. Adams,649 F.2d 625, (8th Cir. 1981) the ruling went a long way towards establishing the right to procedural due process for individuals who were on outpatient mental health civil commitments. Prior to that ruling, a person on outpatient committal, could be locked back up in a mental institution just based on a phone call to a judge.
Disappointments on Appeal
All his appeal work of course has not been successful. One of the biggest disappointments was the federal appeals decision in 2005 upholding the 2000 foot residency restriction for certain Iowa sex offenders. In this class action the case had begun with a success. The United States District Court in Des Moines granted the injunction preventing the state from enforcing the statute, which had been adopted in 2002. Doe v. Miller, 298 F.Supp.2d 844, (S.D.Iowa, 2004).
The Eighth Circuit reversed, finding that the statute was constitutional. Doe v. Miller, 405 F.3d 700, 25 A.L.R.6th 695, (8th Cir. 2005) The final vote before the Eighth Circuit was 6-5. The United States Supreme Court declined a request that they take the appeal.
Partial vindication did come four years later when the Iowa Legislature substantially set aside the statute except for a few particular offenses. Perhaps some of the publicity and editorial support for the original Doe case influenced public opinion, as reflected by the eventual support from the County Attorney’s Association and other law enforcement groups for the changes in the statute in 2009.
Another disappointment were the two cases of Backstrom v. Iowa Dist. Court for Jones County, 508 N.W.2d 705 (Iowa,1993) and Goff v. Daley, 991 F.2d.1437 (8th Cir, 1993.)
Those cases were prison discipline cases from the time when we were doing many of those cases. They involved the burden of proof at a prison hearing, a hearing required by due process. Both courts, with judges dissenting, said that all the prison had to have was “some evidence” of guilty, even if there was even more evidence of innocence.
Mr. Mears still hopes for the day when he can represent a client and get those decisions reconsidered and reversed.
There you have a short summary of 36 years of work, advocating for those in society who have the least advocates and the least rights.