Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 28, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa attorney general Brenna Bird discusses her first seven months in office.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Stephen Gruber-Miller, statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



She's the first republican Iowa Attorney General in more than 40 years. She has quickly made staff changes and shifted policy for the office. We'll talk with Brenna Bird on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 28th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest on this edition of Iowa Press worked for Congressman Steve King, for the Branstad-Reynolds administration. She has been a county attorney in Guthrie and Fremont Counties. And this past November, she was elected Attorney General. Brenna Bird, thanks for joining Iowa Press.

Bird: Thanks, I'm glad to be here.

Henderson: Also joining our conversation are Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Attorney General Bird, your office is going to be arguing against a ban on the abortion law that was passed recently by the legislature, signed by Governor Reynolds. A district court ruled a very similar law unconstitutional in 2019. What will be your legal argument for why the Supreme Court should rule differently this time around?

Bird: Well, I am so glad that the Iowa Supreme Court took up our appeal of the heartbeat law. That is important and I have worked to defend life in the courts and will continue to do that. There have been big changes since 2019 at the national level, notably the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case. So, we will be arguing to uphold the heartbeat law in Iowa's Supreme Court in light of that new federal case law.

Murphy: And the court earlier this year issued a ruling on an appeal of that 2019 ruling that I mentioned and it was more of a procedural ruling than on the merits of the law itself. But it was a split decision and that effectively left that block in place. There were some members of your party and in the conservative movement who think that the Supreme Court justices who ruled to not overrule that District Court decision should be impeached. Is that your view?

Bird: My focus is on defending our heartbeat law in court and now we have, after the special session, a new heartbeat law that is coming up on appeal. And that's where my focus is. The prior decision wasn't actually a decision at all of the Iowa Supreme Court because it was a tie. And so, by operation of law that allows the old District Court decision to stand. That's how it works when there's not a majority on the Iowa Supreme Court. So, they didn't actually reach any kind of decision. And you're right, the issues were very different, there were some very different procedural issues at issue there.

Murphy: Just real quick, last time around you had some, the Attorney General's Office had some outside groups helping out with the case and making arguments. I haven't seen any entered in yet this time around. Will there be eventually? Or will your office be handling it on its own?

Bird: Yeah, last time around under the prior Attorney General, he did not defend the heartbeat law in court. And so, Governor Reynolds found other attorneys that would represent the state's interest in court and uphold the law. This time around I am defending our laws in court, I am defending Iowa's pro-life heartbeat law in court as well.

Murphy: Will it be literally you making the arguments or will it be someone on your staff?

Bird: Oh, I've got a team member that has been working hard on that. But I'm very involved in that case.

Gruber-Miller: So, the way the enforcement of this law would work if it were allowed to take effect is, there's not criminal penalties necessarily, but there would potentially be licensing discipline for doctors who perform abortions in violation of the law. Is that the right way to enforce this in your view? Or do you think that your office should have sort of authority to get involved?

Bird: Well, the law, of course, is up to the legislature and then it's my job to enforce it or to defend it when it is challenged in court. And I do think that the approach that the legislature had makes sense. No criminal penalties, but to look at it as a licensing and standard of care issue.

Henderson: Your office is undergoing a review of victim services and early on during your tenure, which started in January, you put on hold the use of Plan B for rape victims. Do you anticipate making that permanent? Or do you expect to ask the legislature to do that?

Bird: Well, very early in my term I wanted to make sure that we were conducting a thorough audit of all of the victim services that our office offers. It's so important that we serve victims well and it had been a long time since that had occurred. So, we did that meeting with stakeholders all over Iowa, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services organizations to get that feedback and had a number of meetings around the state. And we are working on that audit and what the outcome of that will be. But you're right, we did pause payments to entities like Planned Parenthood and others that were being reimbursed for abortions and for Plan B. However, those services still remains available under Iowa law to victims. It's just whether public funds will pay for them.

Henderson: So, do you think you have the authority to make that a permanent policy? Or do you expect the legislature to address it?

Bird: I do think that is within the discretion of the Attorney General's Office as to what to pay for.

Henderson: And so, once this audit is done, do you intend that to be the permanent policy?

Bird: I do, yes, once it's done.

Henderson: So, in the audit, are there victim services agencies that you're sanctioning or intend to sanction?

Bird: The way that we're looking at things is not to criticize but rather to find ways to make things better. So, I will tell you the audit did uncover some things that were troubling. For example, counties that didn't have advocates there to sit with victims in court to serve them. Those counties weren't being served by the agency that was supposed to serve them. And so, to me that is a serious situation. But, I think that is a time where we encourage those folks who are involved to serve all 99 counties, to work hard to do the right thing and get things turned around a little bit. COVID was very hard on victim services. They had a hard time with staffing and, as we know, it really interfered with the court system. But, that has been over for a while and we need to make sure that every county is getting the services that they need, that whether someone is a victim of a crime in a small rural county or a large urban area, they need to have advocacy services.

Murphy: I wanted to take a step back and talk about abortion policy more broadly here. Within the Republican Party and even among the presidential candidates that we hear coming through our state there is sort of an internal debate happening. As you mentioned, the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling sort of changed the legal landscape and pushed the issue back to the states. I'm just curious how you feel about this. Are you comfortable with it now being a patchwork of state-by-state policies? Or is there a role for the federal government to play in setting some national abortion policy, whether it is at what week, how many weeks of pregnancy it's legal or other things? Does the federal government have a role?

Bird: Well, the federal government can have a role. But, I want to be clear about what my role is. I'm not a legislator. I don't make the law. What I do is I defend the law and I enforce it where appropriate. And so, that is how I look at this and how I approach it. Of course, many things can change over time, including what Congress might do or what a state legislature might do. But, my role here is to defend and enforce the law. And here in Iowa, the issue that we have before us is defending the heartbeat law and I am glad to do that and glad that the Iowa Supreme Court took it up so quickly so that more innocent lives aren't lost.

Murphy: So, if there was a democratic trifecta at the federal government level again and the passed say a 20-week law that states couldn't go lower than 20 weeks, would you defend and enforce that?

Bird: I'm not going to comment on any hypothetical scenarios. I would wait until we actually have a situation before us to talk about.

Gruber-Miller: So, speaking of a state-by-state patchwork of laws, there have been I think 19 republican attorneys general who recently sort of asked the federal government for essentially they objected to a federal rule that would block them from gathering data on women who traveled out of state to seek abortion. Iowa was not one of those states who is seeking that data about women. Curious if you would talk about why that is and if Iowans should feel confident that essentially if they travel out of state for a medical procedure the state won't be trying to seek that data on them?

Bird: Yeah, I'm not aware of anything like that going on within Iowa. That's not something that is happening here.

Gruber-Miller: Is there a reason you didn't sign on with some of those republican colleagues to object to that federal rule?

Bird: You know, I look at Iowa law and at federal law and that's just not an issue that we've got here in Iowa.

Henderson: Is it because of the law as written essentially the sanctions are for the licenses of physicians who would perform abortions outside of a six-week window rather than having criminal penalties for the woman?

Bird: Yeah, we don't have criminal penalties in Iowa and that is a big difference. I can't speak to why the other 19 states decided to pursue that kind of a route. But it's not one that we're looking at here.

Henderson: Iowa has now a 24-hour waiting period for abortions. Is it your view that the law requires an ultrasound at the first visit and the second visit?

Bird: You know, I would want to look at the law carefully before I answer that question.

Henderson: Shifting gears here, you have joined a number of multistate legal pushes against Biden administration policies. How many? And what's the record?

Bird: Yeah, well it has been a busy few months pushing back against the Biden administration. So, as somebody who was born and raised on a farm I have to tell you that I was so happy when our pushback against Waters of the U.S. was successful. That regulation by the Biden administration went way too far and would have hurt agriculture and regulated 97% of the farm ground in Iowa by an EPA bureaucrat. So, I was really encouraged about that victory. That has an injunction on it right now so that's a very good sign. We also were successful at the U.S. Supreme Court on the student debt cancellation so that folks who may have chosen to go straight to work, military, start a family and not go to college, they don't have to pay for someone else's loans. And as somebody who worked hard to pay off their loans, that is something that I believe in, that they shouldn't be forced to pay that extra $400 billion that the law did not allow President Biden to cancel student loans in that way. So, we've had a number of really good victories. We're fighting E15 right now as well. Basically, after the Governor had requested that Iowa be able to have year-round E15, the EPA didn't do it, even though they were required to do that in 90 days. And back in March I told the EPA that we would file a lawsuit if they didn't remedy the situation and follow the law and believe it or not, they still haven't done what they said they were going to do. They said they were going to get it done, they gave us a waiver for this summer, but they haven't started working on next year yet. So, if they don't get things in line we will be taking them to court there as well. And we have a number of other lawsuits, whether it's upholding the Second Amendment or other issues that are important to our constitutional rights.

Murphy: One of those issues that I know you were disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling was on the Prop 12 in California that had to do with regulations on where they can buy pork products and that affected Iowa producers. Why was that not, in your view, just a simple states rights issue? Why is California not able to have laws that they feel are appropriate and Iowa can have laws that they feel are appropriate?

Bird: Well, there are a number of reasons for that. And you're right, I was very disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Prop 12. That decision hurts Iowa pork producers and it hurts all of our ag products that might face discrimination from other states that want to tell the rest of the U.S. how they should farm, how they, for example, should raise their pork. So, it's a real problem. But, please know that the fight is not over. Congress is looking at important action with the EATS Act that would give attorneys general around the United States more power to enforce the law there. And there are also additional cases that will be coming up where we can make arguments that I think have a good chance of being successful. So, we will continue to fight. I know there's a case coming up in Massachusetts that we are monitoring very carefully, was just filed, that will give us a chance to go to court to fight for Iowa farmers. That's something that is important to me and it's an issue that I ran on during the campaign that we need to be standing up for Iowa agriculture against whether it's California or Washington, D.C. or other states that want to dictate to us.

Murphy: And if I can just follow up on that because the law, and correct me if I'm representing this wrong, but what California had in place didn't tell Iowa what they had to do, it just said if you do it this way we're not going to buy from you. Why is that not perfectly within California's rights to say we're going to buy our products from states that we feel are doing ways that we feel are appropriate? Why is that not a state's right issue?

Bird: Well, because by telling Iowa farmers exactly how they have to raise their pork to sell it in California, a major market, they are effectively telling Iowa farmers how to farm and what to do. And I think we have a number of arguments that we can make. In the Prop 12 case, the argument that was relied upon was the dormant commerce clause case law out there. And I thought that was a strong argument, so I'm disappointed that the Supreme Court didn't uphold the rights of pork producers. But we have additional tools in the arsenal and we will keep on working and keep on fighting for Iowa farmers.

Gruber-Miller: So, I wanted to turn to the state's government reorganization plan that passed this year. In that 1,500 or so page bill, there was language essentially saying that the Attorney General has the power to step into counties and prosecute county level cases without the county attorney specifically asking. Now, you have said that that power existed already. But, what I'm curious about is have you taken any of those steps to go in and prosecute one of those cases in a county? And what's your standard for when you'll do so?

Bird: Yeah, so as a county attorney, someone who served in both Guthrie and Fremont Counties, I really appreciate and support the work that county attorneys do across the state and in their counties to keep us safe. And you're right, the Attorney General's Office has had statewide criminal jurisdiction since the 1860s. So, it has been there for a long time. The reorganization bill did clarify that to make that a little more clear. But, as it stands today there is no case in Iowa that we have intervened in without the request of the local county attorney. That's not to say that it couldn't happen at some point, but it would be an unusual situation. The way that we work with county attorneys in our office is we work with them, we want to help them, we want to be there should they want us to come in and prosecute a case for them. They are often very busy and overworked and so if a homicide or other tough case comes up and they want our office to come in to prosecute that, we are ready to do that and glad to do that.

Henderson: Speaking of prosecutors, you've hired more prosecutors. Is that because you anticipate that you'll be handling more cases at the county level?

Bird: We asked the legislature for funding to hire more prosecutors and they did that and we very much appreciate it. The reason I asked for more prosecutors was because back in 1997 there were 11 prosecutors in the AG's Office that would drive around and held counties with these cases. Now we're down to 7. And this is at a time when the number of homicides is up, the number of sexual assaults is up. We need more boots on the ground so that we can always be there when a county needs us.

Gruber-Miller: Sorry, I wanted to follow up on the question I was asking and just find out, what would be a standard for when you would step into a county and intervene in a case without the county attorney asking you to? What factors would you consider there?

Bird: Well, so far that kind of situation hasn't presented itself. But, if it did and it was necessary that could be a possibility. But our focus is always on working with our local county attorneys and local law enforcement and coming in where they need our help. So, that scenario hasn't arisen.

Gruber-Miller: So, another aspect of the reorganization bill has to do with prosecuting election-related crimes. Your office now has sole jurisdiction over those kind of crimes in the state, which is a change. Before, you could have counties prosecuting these crimes individually. What do you need to do to kind of prepare to handle those kind of cases? Do you need to staff up? Do you need to set up a dedicated unit? How are you approaching that new responsibility?

Bird: Yeah, so election integrity is so important and we want people to have confidence that the elections are correct and confidence in the outcome of the elections. So, we are working there on how to implement that new law as we do have jurisdiction over all of those election integrity issues that are in the election section of the Iowa Code. So, we haven't hired any additional staff members to do that because we didn't get any funding for that. But, we want to make sure that those cases are investigated and where there is a violation of law that those are prosecuted.

Murphy: There is a lot of money coming into the state, expected to anyways, once these decisions are final related to settlements from opioid lawsuits. First of all, just to that point, what is the latest number? And where do you expect that that settlement money will be used in the state of Iowa?

Bird: Yeah, so those settlements come in on an ongoing basis every year and come in at a different pace depending on which settlement it is. And it is up to the legislature to decide how to spend that opioid money. They have that authority and I know that they are taking this time to look at it because they have asked me some questions about how best to serve. I think we need to look at prevention to keep people from getting addicted in the first place, especially kids and concerns about vaping and other ways that kids might start using opioids. We also have to look at treatment and make sure that people have long-term options for treatment so that they can work through their addiction. And it's best if that treatment includes a mental health component too for those who need it. And then we need to have accountability so that folks who are selling drugs, especially to kids and to others, are held accountable under the law. And that's why I was so glad when the legislature passed the bill that Governor Reynolds and I worked on to punish drug dealers who give someone something like an opioid and that substance kills them. Now they are held accountable under Iowa law.

Murphy: So, legislators are asking for your input. Are you asking them to make sure that this all goes to the programs that you're describing? There is a concern that we hear occasionally from democratic lawmakers that some of this will get pocketed away and won't go to the kinds of programs like you're talking about.

Bird: Well, I'm very encouraged about the conversations that I have had with legislators because I think they are committed in both parties to trying to solve the problem that we have here in Iowa. It's serious. We need to do something about it. And as a mom it really worries me about the future. We see young people who are killed by opioids and people who become addicted. I also want to say it does me so much encouragement when I hear from people who have beat back an opioid addiction and people will come up to me and talk to me about what they went through and how they sought treatment. So, I know it's possible to get to the other side. But, as a state we need to work hard and take this very seriously.

Henderson: As mentioned, you were elected in November. You're having a fundraiser for your campaign next weekend. And Ron DeSantis will be there. You've been campaigning alongside some of these republicans, shepherding them around the state as these presidential candidates pass through our state. Do you intend to endorse before the Iowa Caucuses in January of next year?

Bird: Well, right now I am neutral, not endorsing in the Caucuses. My focus is really on doing the job that I've got before me. It's a big job. We have changes to make since my predecessor had been there for four decades. So, that's where my focus is. But, also spending time with the candidates when they come to Iowa, I'm glad to show them around whether that is showing them around the farm or the State Fair coming up. I look forward to hosting all of them and showcasing it here in Iowa and looking forward to having Governor DeSantis at our event coming up. We're having a chicken dinner and a fun event at the Dallas County Fairgrounds.

Henderson: So, you think it's important to stay neutral?

Bird: Well, that's where I am focused right now. I'm neutral because I think we need to be as a state hosting all the candidates and giving them all a chance to get their message out there. And I'm somebody that loves the Iowa Caucuses, I went to my first caucus when I was just 13. So, I think the most important thing about the Iowa Caucuses will be the people who go and show up and vote and persuade their neighbors about who they should vote for. That's the beauty of the caucus.

Gruber-Miller: So, have you ruled out making an endorsement before Caucus Day?

Bird: I haven't ruled it out.

Gruber-Miller: Well, you've been having regular meetings also this year with the Governor since you've been elected and you also campaigned with her last fall. She was adamant about electing a republican ticket. I think the phrase my Attorney General was used. What kinds of conversations do you have when you meet with the Governor? What advice or instruction does she give you? And what do you tell her?

Bird: Yeah, well when Governor Reynolds and I meet we talk about the legal issues that are facing the state, the types of cases that we have been working on, those kinds of matters. And I think it really is helpful when we're working together, working together for the good of Iowa. So, we work together on E15, to get year-round E15, we're working together on that issue and a number of other issues like the legislation that I referenced that would punish the drug dealers who provide fentanyl and kill people. So, we've been able to get some good things accomplished by working together.

Murphy: Your office recently argued on a case involving open records in Iowa. I don't believe you were in office at the time. I guess I just get your thought on how strongly the state's Open Records law should be enforced? And the Governor's Office has really recently been asked by the courts to be more adherent to the state's Open Records law.

Bird: Yeah, so the Open Records law is really important for transparency and openness, it's a commitment that we have here in Iowa and my job as Attorney General is to enforce but also to defend whenever there are lawsuits that would come up. So, that is what our office does.

Henderson: Do you think the law needs to be adjusted? Do you think it's clear? Because that was the conclusion of the legal argument that was presented by the Governor.

Bird: I haven't heard of anybody looking at making major changes to the Open Records law, so I'm not sure what kinds of changes you'd be thinking about. But, there probably always are ways that a law could be improved or clarified. But I think for the most part it works pretty well. We don't see a lot of open records cases making their way through the courts.

Henderson: Okay, well we are out of time today for this conversation. Brenna Bird, thank you for joining us today.

Bird: Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.



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