Lawyers give Iowa judges high marks

Recommend retention in 2016 vote

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DES MOINES – The 66 Iowa judges who will be up for retention on the 2016 general election ballot all received high marks in a performance review by attorneys who try cases before them and should be approved to continue serving on the bench, according to officials with the Iowa State Bar Association.

Guy Cook, a longtime Des Moines attorney and past president of the Iowa Bar Association, said the average score for justices and judges up for retention was 92 percent approval based on their professionalism, demeanor and other criteria rated by hundreds of association members statewide.

“The 63 judges and three Supreme Court justices standing for retention in this year’s general election on Nov. 8 are well-qualified to remain as judges,” according to the 37-page performance review posted at the Web site.

Leading the list are Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht, who received ratings of 91 percent, 82 percent and 88 percent, respectively, based on their knowledge and application of the law, temperament and demeanor, promptness in issuing rulings, and their impartiality in deciding cases based upon law and facts without being affected by outside influence.

The four Iowa Court of Appeals judges up for retention all posted retention percentages at 91 percent or higher.

“These are very high marks,” Cook told a news conference Monday where the performance review results were released.

“This is really an affirmation and a confirmation of what we’ve known for many years that the Iowa judiciary across the board is one of the top in the country,” he added. “The bottom line is this: our state is great because of the high quality of our judges and this review which we are releasing today confirms that.”

Judicial retention votes held under a merit system adopted by Iowa voters in 1962 generally have been low key ballot decisions made with little fanfare, but that changed when religious and social conservatives upset by a unanimous 2009 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa launched a successful campaign to oust three of the seven justices who were up for retention in 2010.

The organized opposition not to retain then-Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit sent shockwaves through Iowa’s judicial and political systems and led to a well-financed effort by both opponents and judicial advocates which ended in a 2012 general-election outcome whereby Iowa voters chose to retain Justice David Wiggins.

The final three justices who were part of the 7-0 same-sex marriage decision are up for retention this Nov. 8 but so far no organized campaign has surfaced seeking their ouster, although judicial advocates said Monday they would respond if something changes in the coming weeks.

On Monday, Cook called the 2010 outcome “an unfortunate result.”

“Three people lost their jobs but nobody lost their rights,” he told reporters. “I think as time passed that ruling by the court has been proven to be supported, although people can fairly disagree with it.

“Frankly, it was an anomaly and perhaps a perversion of the retention system because it is not designed for people to vote yes or no on a particular decision but vote yes or no on whether or not the judge or justice is doing his or her job,” Cook added.

Officials with the Family Leader organization -- which played a lead role in the 2010 campaign to defeat the three justices up for retention and again in the unsuccessful 2012 effort to remove Wiggins from the bench – were not available for comment on the 2016 bar association ratings or potential plans to challenge justices on the ballot this November.

Under Iowa’s nonpartisan merit selection and retention process, every justice and judge after serving a full year on the bench must stand for retention at the next general election and then near the end of each regular term of office. In a retention election, judges do not have opponents. Instead, voters decide whether to retain a judge based on the judge's professional competency. If a judge receives a majority of "yes" votes, the judge may serve another full term.

On the same day that the Iowa State Bar Association released the results of a performance evaluation by Iowa lawyers, the Iowa Judicial Branch posted a 2016 Iowa Voters Judicial Directory at its Web site that contains biographies of each judge on the ballot, including information about each judge's background and education, career, and professional activities.

For all of The Gazette's Election 2017 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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