Judicial selection is no place for politics

Directories for each level of the Linn County Courthouse is seen on the wall on the first level Friday, May 11, 2012, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Renovation of the first floor of the courthouse is almost complete. Eight courtrooms are located on the first level as well as judges' chambers and other offices. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)
Directories for each level of the Linn County Courthouse is seen on the wall on the first level Friday, May 11, 2012, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Renovation of the first floor of the courthouse is almost complete. Eight courtrooms are located on the first level as well as judges' chambers and other offices. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

That Gov. Terry Branstad has chosen only Republicans to serve on the state’s judicial nominating commissions is troubling. Far worse is a bill that would limit the commissions to only those political appointees.

Senate File 327 is buried in subcommittee, where we hope it stays.

The proposal would have political appointees select finalists for bench vacancies, replacing the current balanced system.

The state commission now consists of 17 people. Eight are appointed by the Governor’s Office. Eight more are selected by the Iowa State Bar Association. The longest-serving Iowa Supreme Court justice leads the group and also is a voting member. Under the bill, all 16 members of the commission would be appointed by the Governor’s Office, and the justice leading the commission would vote only to break ties. The state’s 14 district commissions would be likewise changed.

Iowa Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, who is a bill sponsor, said the Bar Association is responsible only to its members, with no accountability to Iowa voters. Garrett appears to have forgotten that voters weigh in when judges stand for retention.

Lawyers, regardless of their political affiliation, work with judges each day, and offer valuable insights during the interviews of those who hope to sit on the bench. Gubernatorial political appointees, on the other hand, often focus on issues unrelated to judicial duties.

This was evidenced in 2013, when proceedings of the state nominating commission were televised. Appointees posed questions that often had little to do with judicial qualifications.

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“Did you make (marriage) covenant vows with your husband that you feel you’ve kept or that you’re breaking?” asked one.

Another requested an applicant “comment on your methodology in choosing a place of worship.”

If lawmakers feel some compelling need to tinker with the courts, we’d suggest finding ways to encourage more applications for judicial vacancies, or increasing judges’ salaries, which have not kept pace with inflation. Iowa’s system of selecting and voting to retain judges has been working well since 1962. It is a model for the country, and supported by lawyers and legal scholars of all political persuasions.

The last thing Iowans should want to do is introduce more politics and partisanship into the selection of our judges.

• Comments: (319) 389-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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