GOP bill would end lawyers' role in nominating judges

Measure 'interjects politics in a greater way,' one lawyer says

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A proposal by Iowa Senate Republicans would allow the governor to appoint all the people who nominate judges — removing from judicial nominating commissions the lawyers elected by their peers.

“If you were trying to decide who the best plumber is to hire, would you want other plumbers or people who are completely uninformed?” asked Guy Cook, past president of the Iowa State Bar Association. “This particular bill eliminates the lawyer participation and interjects politics in a greater way.”

Iowa law requires the governor to appoint eight people to the State Judicial Nominating Commission, a 17-person group that nominates judges for the Iowa Supreme Court and Iowa Courts of Appeals. Lawyers in the state elect eight members from their ranks. The group, led by the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, sends three nominees to the governor for each opening and the governor must choose from the nominees.

Senate File 327, introduced Wednesday by six Republican senators from western and central Iowa, would double the number of governor-appointed commission members to 16 — four from each congressional district — and allow lawyers to select only one “non-voting, advisory” member. The chief justice would lose his or her vote, except in ties.

For Iowa’s 14 district commissions, which nominate district court judges, SF327 likewise would replace lawyer-elected members with gubernatorial picks, except for the non-voting lawyer adviser. The longest-serving district judge, who chairs each 11-person district commission, would not vote except to break ties.

A Gazette investigation in November showed Iowa’s recent governors have heavily favored their own parties when appointing members to judicial nominating commissions.

Gov. Terry Branstad hasn’t chosen any Democrats to nominate Iowa judges since he took office in 2011.

Former Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat who served from 2007 to 2011, favored Democrats among his appointees, but in November 2010, there were five Republicans and nine independents serving on judicial nominating commissions, according to a version of the state’s website from Nov. 7, 2010.

Still, The Gazette review found that although governors appointed more nominators from their own political parties, the judges they ultimately chose were more politically balanced. Of 111 current Iowa judges whose names could be matched with voting records in November, 38 percent were Democrats, 31 percent were Republicans and 31 percent registered as no party.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform ranked Iowa fourth in the nation in 2015 for criteria that include judges’ impartiality, judges’ competence and juries’ fairness. The state has ranked in the survey’s top 10 every year since 2002, the Chamber notes on its website.

Iowa Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said he co-sponsored SF327 because he believes lawyers have too much sway over public members when nominating judges.

“It stands to reason the lawyers will be more skillful in advancing their opinions on the nominating commissions, than non lawyers,” said Garrett, who is an attorney, in an email to The Gazette. “The problem is that the Bar (Association) is only responsible to its members, with no accountability to Iowa voters. The selection of Iowa’s judges is too important to be dominated by a group, no matter how talented, that is not accountable to the voters.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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