With state supreme courts in a new focus after the overturn of Roe v Wade, elections for those people responsible for interpreting state law are also getting renewed attention.
In June, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed their previous 2018 decision that said abortions were protected in the Iowa Constitution. In November, Iowa Supreme Court Justices Dana Oxley and Matthew McDermott face retention elections where Iowans can decide whether they remain on the bench or are removed from office at the end of 2022.
Oxley and McDermott were appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2020. Oxley replaced the late Chief Justice Mark Cady, who was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad and died of a heart attack in November 2019. McDermott replaced Justice David Wiggins, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Vilsack and retired in February 2020.
Six of the seven supreme court justices are Republican-appointed.
Oxley is the fourth woman to be appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court. She joined the majority opinion to rule the Iowa Constitution does not include a fundamental right to abortion.
She graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1998 and worked as a law clerk for Eighth Circuit US Appeals Court Judge David Hansen for a decade. After that, she worked in private practice in Cedar Rapids and handled a lot of cases that appeared in appeals court.
Oxley said in her application to the Supreme Court that her whole career has been about examining a wide variety of legal issues and potential outcomes in cases.
McDermott agreed with the abortion opinion, but filed a separate one arguing that it should have gone further by giving any future abortion restrictions a lower threshold for justification than the current undue burden standard the majority decided.
McDermott argued the standard should be “rational basis,” which basically means that the Iowa government must have a legitimate state interest in passing certain abortion restrictions. That test is used when the right in question isn’t a fundamental one.
Both the Iowa Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court have decided abortion is not a fundamental right.
McDermott graduated from University of California, Berkeley School of Law in 2003 and spent his career in private practice. As an attorney at a Des Moines law firm, he handled civil and criminal cases. He also represented Sen. Joni Ernst in her 2018 divorce and defended Iowa’s 2017 public employee collective bargaining law on behalf of the state.
Ernst and Sen. Chuck Grassley also offered McDermott’s name for a US attorney position in Iowa’s Southern District in 2017.
McDermott has also contributed money to Republican candidates and organizations and was legal counsel for the Republican Party of Iowa from 2007 to 2012.
Judicial Retention Elections
When judicial spots open up in Iowa, a nonpartisan commission studies the credentials of different Iowa lawyers who were nominated for the position. The commission then nominates the individuals it finds most qualified.
For the supreme court, the state judicial nominating commission nominates three people for the governor, who then makes the final decision.
After serving a full year, each judge and justice faces a retention election where Iowans vote “yes” or “no” about whether a justice should remain on the bench. A majority of “yes” votes allow a judge to serve a full term.
The last time Iowa Supreme Court justices were removed through a retention vote was in 2010, following conservative activists’ organizing a “no” vote campaign in response to the court legalizing gay marriage.
The merit selection system was added to the Iowa constitution in 1962 as a way to take the politics out of the process. Before that, judges and justices were elected like any other figure. Before the election, the Iowa State Bar Association releases performance evaluations for voters to make an informed decision. In the evaluations, Iowa lawyers rank judges’ on qualities such as knowledge, application of law, temperament and impartiality, among others.
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