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Deciding on judicial retention

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Arnold “Skip” Kenyon III, guest columnist

For the last several months, campaign messages have dominated news media outlets and commercial advertising space, emphasizing the importance of the presidential election in November. For most Americans, the concept of representative democracy is easy to grasp — thehe executive and legislative branches exist to exercise the will of the majority. Therefore, it is important to cast votes for president, U.S. House and Senate, governor and state legislature. Unfortunately, more frequently we are seeing voters confuse political elections with judicial retention votes.

Based on a principle nearly 200 years old, Iowa’s complex Merit Selection process, which has been in place since 1962, protects citizen rights and follows the advice of our country’s founders. Instead of requiring judicial officers to run against one another through the political process, Iowa’s system requires those who wish to sit on the bench to wait for a vacancy in their districts. Applicants then submit information to a local, non-partisan commission. The commission consists of five local attorneys and five laypersons, and is chaired by the senior judge of the district. The commission, in turn, selects two or three finalists to send to the governor. After an intensive interview process, the governor makes the final selection.

This system utilizes the concept of balance between the three branches of government to ensure independent courts. The only applicants eligible for consideration are judges and attorneys whose peers recognize their competence, character and commitment to impartiality.

After a judge or justice has served at least one year, (and again every six years thereafter; eight years for supreme court justices), Iowans are invited to examine their records. These retention votes act as a final check on incompetence and corruption.

The fluid nature of public opinion is precisely why we must protect the courts from political headwinds, regardless of our personal beliefs on individual rulings. Examination of each judicial officer’s contribution as a whole is necessary to retain exceptional leadership and commitment to justice. As an example, consider a few of Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady’s accomplishments as head of the judicial branch:

• Instituted and expanded drug, mental health and veteran courts to divert low-level offenders, offer effective treatment and reduce recidivism.

• Established special business courts to streamline litigation.

• Transitioned Iowa to an electronic filing system (EDMS), which speeds up the legal process and assists Clerk of Court offices.

• Fostered a culture of openness by holding Supreme Court cases in rural and urban venues across the state.

• Advocated strongly for full judicial branch funding at the statehouse.

• Committed to provide access to justice for all Iowa citizens.

Whenever the majority asserts its will through the legislative process there will always be a smaller core of people who will be negatively affected. It is the responsibility of the courts to ensure that these impacts are neither illegal nor unconstitutional. Unlike a political race, retention votes are not intended to serve as a referendum on the popularity of a judicial officer’s decisions. Rather, the retention vote serves as shorthand for one, all-important question:

Has this judge or justice been impartial in his or her rulings, regardless of politics or popularity?

Your vote in the retention election is imperative to maintain independent and virtuous courts in Iowa.

For more information, and to see our members’ evaluation of each judge or justice up for retention, go to judicialfacts.org.

• Arnold “Skip” Kenyon III is president of the Iowa State Bar Association.

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