Republican legislators have introduced bills in the Iowa House (HSB 110) and the Iowa Senate (SSB 1101) that are a direct attack on Iowa’s merit-based judicial selection process. The Iowa group Justice Not Politics describes the proposed changes as the largest judicial power grab ever attempted in Iowa.
Iowa’s current merit-based judicial selection process significantly removes politics from the choice of judges. The intent of the Republican changes is to overturn Iowa’s impartial selection system and replace it with handpicked political appointees of the governor’s party.
Currently 8 of the 16 members of the nominating commission for Iowa Supreme Court are chosen by the governor and the remaining 8 are democratically elected by Iowa attorneys across the state. The change would guarantee the governor’s party would select as many as 14 of the 16 commissioners. Additionally, the bills would remove the requirement that a current judge chair the commission and replace them with a political appointee, further politicizing the process. The changes would also adversely affect the District Judicial Nominating System.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage and the recent court ruling against the fetal heart beat bill have emboldened Republicans to attack the judicial selection process. Speakers at the weekly Moral Mondays meeting at the Capitol suggested this proposed attack on Iowa’s merit selection is coming from the far right.
The Chair of Justice Not Politics, Connie Ryan, suggested that this bill was written by the religious right group, the Family Leader. Senator Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids said this matches the agenda that the Federalist Society is pursuing in other states. The Federalist Society provided the list of U.S. Supreme Court nominees that President Trump used to select Brett Kavanaugh.
Representative Jo Oldson of Des Moines said the Republican proponents of this change flatly said, “This is about the gay marriage and abortion decisions recently made … because these were wrong decisions.”
Iowa Republican leaders have admitted this isn’t about improving judicial selection but rather anger at recent rulings by Iowa courts.
“Frankly, over 20 years-plus there have been a lot of decisions that legislators feel conflicted with what they wanted to do or their intent,” said Jack Whitver, leader of the Senate Republicans.
“We may want to just make sure … the governor has a group of people that she can choose a judge from that at least shares her world view,” said Linda Upmeyer, the Republican House speaker.
Opponents of overturning the current merit based selection process warn that the insertion of politics threatens Iowa’s reputation for judicial quality.
“I just think tampering with that formula is an extraordinarily bad idea,” said Jerry Anderson, dean of Drake University Law School.
“It’s basically to politicize the process. That’s how I read that. And that’s exactly what we don’t want,” Anderson said. “We have a judiciary that I think is the best in the country in terms of quality from top to bottom. Why would you mess with the process that has produced that quality of judges?”
“Injecting politics into this process of selecting our judges is crazy. It’s exactly why we got merit-based selection back in 1963, to get politics out of it,” according to Tom Levis, president of the Iowa State Bar Association. “There isn’t anything that’s broken. We’re getting good judges, good, quality judges. I think it’s just a terrible mistake … to try to change the process for nominating judges.”
The Brennan Center for Justice warns that this attack on the judicial selection process follows similar attacks in other states. “So far this year, bills introduced in at least 19 state legislatures risk weakening the courts by giving political actors more control over judicial selection, judicial decision-making, or judicial administration.”
Iowa’s Justice Not Politics offers a website to voice your objection to this judicial power grab.
by Rick Smith