Branstad's picks for judicial commission suggest politics are at play

Half the commission members are appointed by the state bar association and the other half by the governor

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad speaks during the Health and Human Services Committee panel meeting at the National Governors A
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad speaks during the Health and Human Services Committee panel meeting at the National Governors Association's winter meetings in Washington Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointments to the State Judicial Nominating Commission include people who have advocated against the commission, a man who has been turned down for judgeships and some who have vowed to stop activist judges.

The personal views of some of Branstad’s appointees are in their applications, acquired through an open-records request. The records also show a majority of the appointees are Republican Party donors.

That a Republican governor would look to seat party supporters to commission spots shouldn’t come as a surprise, experts say, even if it doesn’t follow the spirit of the merit selection law.

“No, you shouldn’t be shocked,” said Scott Peters, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa whose research focuses on politics in the judicial system. “There are a lot of political dynamics that go on (in the appointment process).”

Under the law, half the commission members are appointed by the state bar association and the other half appointed by the governor. There are separate commissions for filling district and appellate judgeships. The 30 appointees Branstad announced this month are for the district commissions.

“I committed a great deal of time and energy working on the 2010 election that resulted in the dismissal of the Iowa’s (sic) Supreme Court judges,” Tammy Kobza, 51, a homemaker from Ireton and an appointee in District 3B, wrote in the personal statement section of her application.

“I want my children and future grandchildren to enjoy the liberties, freedoms and safety that I enjoyed growing up,” continues Kobza, who holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Iowa, is president of the Iowa Eagle Foundation and a volunteer with the Sheldon Tea Party Patriots.

“I am concerned that it may disappear to a tyrannical government within the next generation or two if we don’t do our part. Stopping judicial activism seems to me to be a significant way we can turn the tide of moral decay and loss of our liberties,” she wrote.

In a phone call last week, Kobza expanded on her views.

She said the United States is “the most exceptional nation on Earth,” but she worries about judges who she believes legislate from the bench. She sees the Iowa Supreme Court decision that allowed same-sex marriage as evidence of arrogance in the judicial branch by “ruling against the people’s will.”

“ ‘Secular’s’ not the right word,” she said. “ ‘Anti-founder’ is more like it. The founders of this country were very religious people. Very, very God-fearing people.”

She said people seeking a judicial nomination from her need to be ready to answer questions about their views on natural law, the Constitution, as well as their moral and political views on “the concept that we are endowed by our Creator” with certain rights.

At two pages, Kobza’s personal statement is the longest of the 30 appointees. Most kept their remarks to a few paragraphs or less.

Patricia Seebach, a District 6 appointment, simply wrote: “tbd.” Seebach is among at least 24 of the 30 nominees who contributed to Republican candidates and committees in their own names.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said in an email that the governor “chose people who will work hard, select good judges and respect the law.”

Albrecht wrote that “a majority of the districts did not have a single Republican serving previously, so the governor’s actions corrected this” but party affiliation wasn’t a primary concern.

Rachel Caufield, a research fellow at the American Judicature Society, said Iowa’s merit selection process is one of the better processes in the country.

Founded in 1913, the American Judicature Society is a non-partisan organization that works to protect the integrity of the justice system. It advocates for several aspects of judicial reform, including the merit selection of judges.

Caufield said she was surprised Albrecht acknowledged that Republican credentials were a factor in the decision-making process.

“That being said, it is a gubernatorial appointment. So while politics may play some role, it certainly doesn’t live up to the ideal of having a strictly merit-based selection,” she said.

Like Peters, Caufield took special note of the appointment of Ryan Koopmans for District 5C. Koopmans is an attorney — one of two — appointed by the governor, even though, in theory, the bar association appoints the lawyers and the governor’s appointees are laypeople.

The other lawyer is David Hanson of Fayette. His personal statement mentions that he was encouraged by Brenna Findley to apply for the position after he wrote her about a proposal from the non-partisan Uniform Laws Commission “that I thought terribly unwise.”

Findley was the 2010 Republican nominee for attorney general and is Branstad’s legal counsel.

Branstad considered Koopmans last summer for an appointment to the commission that appoints appellate judges. Koopmans has publicly supported a system in which the governor appoints judicial nominees, who are then subject to Senate confirmation — similar to how the president nominates to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It seemed like an appointment with the goal of changing the system from the inside,” Caufield said.

Koopmans’ personal statement on his application doesn’t mention the previous controversy. Instead, he mentions his “sustained interest in the judicial selection process” and how “vitally important” the selection of district judges is to the state.

While Koopmans’ statement indicates he has given thought to the role of the commission in the overall scheme of judicial work, other new commissioners seem to approach the work with few preconceived notions.

The entire personal statement of 73-year-old Leola Harris, who works as secretary and treasurer for Harris Electrical in Hopkinton, reads as follows:“I guess I never gave it much thought to be perfectly honest with you. Thank you (state Rep.) Steve Lukan from bringing my name up. I am sure there are many reasons I would like to help with this appointment. Thank you again.”

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