Iowa judge fired for dismissing case due to unclear acronym

Iowa's prisons agency has fired a judge who cited confusion about an acronym in an inmate's disciplinary report when she refused to punish him for failing to pay back $10 he borrowed, the judge's termination letter shows.

Administrative Law Judge Renee Sneitzer alleges her firing amounts to retaliation, renewing questions about the independence of judges who work for the Department of Corrections.

Judges who impose sanctions that can lengthen sentences and put inmates in solitary confinement are supposed to be neutral fact-finders under the law, but they report to department general counsel Michael Savala. Critics have said this arrangement could jeopardize their neutrality if they feel pressure to favor the department.

In a July 12 ruling, Sneitzer rejected the department's request to take away earned time from a work-release offender at a Sioux City halfway house. The center's staff found the offender had committed major rules violations by refusing orders to pay back a manager $10 he borrowed — despite having the money to do so. The center wanted Sneitzer to impose punishment, which could have lengthened his sentence by days or weeks.

The one-page staff disciplinary report submitted to Sneitzer said the inmate claimed that he couldn't cash a check to pay the money back because "he had a DH pending." Sneitzer ruled that imposing discipline would be "arbitrary and unsupported" and violate the inmate's due process rights because of one reason.

"The finding of facts are simply not clear to this (administrative law judge); namely the term 'DH'," she wrote.

Department spokesman Cord Overton said the acronym apparently referred to "disciplinary hearing."

In an Aug. 28 letter obtained under the open records law, Savala told Sneitzer that she was being fired because she ignored his July 7 order to send back any problematic reports "so that staff have an opportunity to correct."

"You dismissed an offender discipline report simply because the acronym 'DH' appeared in the report and you did not follow my supervisory directive in remanding the report" in violation of work rules, Savala wrote.

The letter also alleges Sneitzer, who had a roughly $100,000 annual salary, failed to keep Savala informed about her schedule and leave and had faced prior suspensions.

Sneitzer, who is black, had been with the department 10 years and was based at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. She declined comment, citing pending appeals of her termination and suspensions.

Sneitzer wrote in a filing to the Public Employment Relations Board last month that she suffered "retaliatory, discriminatory, abusive, harassing and fabricated efforts" that were intended to end her career. She's seeking expungement of her discipline, reinstatement and unspecified monetary damages.

The department has faced prior criticism for interfering in inmate disciplinary cases. A federal judge in 2014 blasted the department for removing a judge from an alleged gang rape case after he questioned whether it may have been fabricated. The replacement judge appointed by the department promptly found the rape occurred and issued harsh sanctions.

In a 2015 report, Iowa's Office of Ombudsman recommended that the department stop allowing communications between prison staff and judges about pending cases, saying the policy undermines protections meant to ensure inmates get fair hearings.