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University of Iowa News Release


Jan. 6, 2009

UI law professors help legislators legislate

When the Iowa legislature convenes for its 83rd session next month, the University of Iowa College of Law may once again have an expert advisory role in the law-making process.

Law professor Arthur Bonfield may assist legislators in their efforts to reform the state's open records and open meetings laws. He worked with the legislature on the same issues during its last session, but only the Senate acted on the first proposal of those reforms.

In addition, professor James Tomkovicz will continue his work with a 15-member committee headed by two legislators to comprehensively reform the Iowa Criminal Code.

Those are just two of the efforts by UI law professors to help Iowa lawmakers make better law.

"The University of Iowa College of Law is a great resource with so many distinguished faculty who have expertise that can help state officials make dramatic improvements in Iowa's laws," said Tomkovicz.

Tomkovicz, Bonfield and fellow professor Shelly Kurtz have all lent their expertise recently to the legislature.

"Law reform is the art of the possible," said Bonfield, who holds the Alan Vestal Chair and is the law school's veteran legal reformer by participating in more than a dozen major Iowa law reform initiatives in his 45 years at the UI law school, including previous reforms of the state's open records and public meetings laws, and what he considers his most important work, the Iowa Administrative Procedures Act. "You start with the theoretically best solutions, realizing it has to run through a political process that makes whatever amendments are necessary," he said. "You measure your progress by increments."

Sometimes, that means a bill is so heavily re-written that the finished product looks nothing like the original proposal. But other times, a proposal is hardly changed at all. In 2007, state legislatures across the country considered a new Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, written largely by Kurtz. In most every state, the approved law was left largely intact from Kurtz's original proposal.

Kurtz said the law was badly needed because the old law hadn't been amended since 1987 and was grossly inadequate because of subsequent advances in health care technology. He said the updated law differs from its predecessor in that it puts a priority on the use of an organ for transplantation or therapy, and it allows its use for research or education only if permitted by the donor or the donor's family when not otherwise suitable for transplantation.

"My bias in drafting this law was to make it as easy as possible for people to donate their organs and tissue after they've died," said Kurtz, the Percy Bordwell professor of law who saw his proposal adopted by the Iowa legislature and signed by Gov. Chet Culver in 2007.  "It's too important for the 95,000 people who are on the waiting lists, and we wanted a law to streamline the process."

While Kurtz and Bonfield have seen their work successfully enacted into law, Tomkovicz's reform work is only just beginning. The criminal code revision, the first since 1978, will be designed to make the code more clear, modern and comprehensive.

"The Iowa code lacks coherence, and we aren't going to fix the problems by just making isolated changes here and there," said Tomkovicz, the Edward F. Howrey Professor of Law. "The incoherence is in part due to the many piecemeal modifications and additions made by the state legislature over the past 30 years. There are also many ambiguities and gaps in the code that create difficult problems of interpretation for lawyers and courts. I hope that we can formulate and propose a thorough and thoughtful revision that addresses and remedies most of the deficiencies."

Kurtz, one of the leading experts in anatomical gift law in the United States, said his interest in reforming the law began mostly through serendipity, when he taught a class in 1992 that wrote a model organ donation law as an exercise.

"I knew only a little about anatomical gift laws at the time but the experience in the class made me interested intellectually in the topic," he said. Later, he worked with the Iowa Donor Network on a statewide survey that polled Iowans about their understanding and concerns about organ donations.

His work in drafting the uniform act came after he was appointed one of Iowa's representatives to the Commission on Uniform State laws in 1999 and he was appointed the chief drafter of the 10-member committee to draft the model uniform anatomical gift act.

"It made sense for me to work on the act because of all my research and past work in the area," said Kurtz.

Bonfield's interest in legal reform dates to his days as a student at Yale Law School during the late 1950s. He was considering two possible careers for himself -- to teach either in a university law school or in a political science department.
"My principal mentor, Professor Alexander Bickel, told me if you want your scholarly work to be read and possibly admired by a few scholars and that is all, teach in a political science department, but if you want your work to be read by people who have power and influence and who could, if persuaded, change the legal system as a result of your work, teach in a law school," Bonfield said. After considering Bickel's comments it was an easy choice. He wanted his scholarship to make a difference in the real world.

Tomkovicz said his motivation to participate in the reform of the Iowa Criminal Code is not only professional, but personal as well.

"I owe this state," said Tomkovicz, a Los Angeles native who started teaching at Iowa in 1982 and whose three children were raised and educated in Iowa City. "Iowa has provided a wonderful quality of life, and I have enjoyed an incredibly rewarding career here for nearly 30 years. Both the university and the state of Iowa have afforded a remarkably supportive and nurturing environment for me and my family. Assisting in criminal code reform is something I can do to repay a small part of my sizeable debt to our state."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),