CEDAR RAPIDS — State lawmakers want Iowa’s young people to be more civically involved and aware, even proposing legislation requiring high schoolers to pass a civics test to graduate.
That bill has stalled, but high school students from across Northeast Iowa demonstrated Friday while attending a Federal Judiciary Youth Summit with U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley that it might not be necessary.
Inside the Cedar Rapids’ federal courthouse, more than 100 students and teachers from 20 schools sat shoulder to shoulder, jotting notes and delivering questions to Grassley — chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — and two federal judges about the state of the judiciary, how it functions and its likely future.
“Why do you believe that some people consider the judicial branch the weakest of the three branches of government, and what do you think we can do to fix this idea?” asked Cedar Falls High School junior Marika Yang.
“We’re certainly the smallest,” said Chief Judge John Jarvey, with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa — disagreeing with the premise the judiciary is the weakest.
“We don’t have an army, we can’t enforce our own decisions,” he said. “But we are powerful. If Congress passes a law that’s in violation of the United States Constitution, we’ll strike it down as unconstitutional. It’s one of the biggest checks and balances of our government.”
As for size, Grassley noted the judicial work force is notably smaller right now, with between 110 and 115 federal court judgeships open.
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When President Barack Obama left, the judiciary had 60 vacancies — about average, Grassley said.
Since the election, some judges have resigned “to give this president an opportunity” to name his own team.
At one point, according to Grassley, the vacancies reached 140 and filling those posts takes time. Even with GOP control of Congress and the White House, “We can’t do anything on any judgeships until the president sends their name up to us.”
Even then, the nominees can hit snags. The 23 judges now in line for confirmation were delayed at the start of the year, according to Grassley. “At the end of a year, the ones that the Senate haven’t approved go back to the White House,” he said. “For these 23 judges on the calendar now, we went through the process twice of voting them out of committee.”
Grassley talked in depth of the lengthy vetting process behind judge nominations and confirmations — although he conceded different states do it different ways.
“I got to tell you that you’re all fortunate to live in Iowa when it comes to judgeships because across the country, there are many places where judgeships are handed out like political patronage,” Jarvey told the students. “It’s not like that in Iowa. It’s not like that with Sen. Grassley. I wouldn’t be standing here if it was anything different because I’ve never worked for a candidate. I’ve never given any money to a candidate … I’m just a judge.”
In talking about the future of the judiciary, Grassley spoke about his support for cameras in the courtroom and his belief the “public’s business ought to be public.” In fact, Grassley told the high schoolers, he supports cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Chief Justice (John) Roberts said that we’ll have cameras in the courtroom over my dead body,” Grassley said. “I like Justice Roberts enough I don’t want him to die or get out of there. But I think we ought to have cameras in the Supreme Court as well.”
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One student asked the judges and Grassley to opine on interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Judge Michael J. Melloy, with the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said it can be a challenge.
“It’s very difficult to say, ‘how does a document that’s 230 years old apply to things that nobody in their wildest imagination could have even thought of 200 years ago?’” Melloy said.
Grassley said, generally speaking, Democratic presidents tend to appoint judges who view the constitution as a living document while Republicans appoint those who view the “original intent” of the document.
“Justice (Neil) Gorsuch would fall into this category,” he said of President Donald Trump’s nominee. But Grassley acknowledged that it “isn’t black and white.”
“The Constitution is what the Supreme Court decides the Constitution is, so that kind of makes it a living document,” he said. “Even if all nine of them are following original intent.”
Although Grassley said his aim in meeting with the students Friday was to educate them on the judicial branch, which he believes gets less attention in schools than the presidency and Congress, the country as a whole and its leaders might benefit from these types of forums as well.
“Having greater understanding of the judicial system brings greater confidence to that justice system, and less cynicism about our government,” he said. “And one of the major problems we have in government is people are cynical about it.”
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