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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Iowa’s judicial branch was center stage Tuesday as state lawmakers continued their push to adjournment for the 2022 legislative session.
Majority Republicans proposed more tweaks to the composition of the state nomination commission that recommend judges for openings on the bench for district courts.
Minority Democrats, meantime, rejected Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ nominees to the state commission that recommends judges for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals — alleging she has ignored the law that says her nominees must be chosen without considering their political affiliation.
The debates over the process by which Iowa nominates judicial candidates and selects judges for the bench played out as lawmakers made a push to adjourning the 2022 legislative session.
As of early Tuesday evening, lawmakers were close to gaveling out for the year, although some important pieces of policy remained unresolved. Legislators said they expected to complete work sometime Tuesday evening, or perhaps early morning Wednesday.
And legislators were close to finishing their work on an $8.2 billion state budget, which goes into effect in just more than five weeks.
Republicans approved a tweak to the judicial nominating commission, a panel of Iowans that interviews judicial candidates and provides the governor with a list of finalists from which to choose, at the district court level.
Under the Republican-approved legislation, the chair of the district court’s nominating commission would no longer automatically be the senior-most judge in the district; instead, the chair would be elected by the commission members. Under a previous proposal that passed the Iowa Senate on Monday, the judge-as-chair would have been replaced by a nominee from the governor instead.
“Basically, somebody’s got straw caught in their throat and wants to get rid of the judges off of the nominating commissions, and this is the compromise that we came to,” said Rep. Gary Worthan, a Republican from Storm Lake who leads the judicial branch budget committee in the Iowa House.
Sen. Nate Boulton, a Democrat from Des Moines and a lawyer, said the change made by the House is preferable to the Senate proposal. But he and other Senate Democrats expressed concern that statehouse Republicans are continuing a multiyear effort to politicize Iowa’s judicial branch.
Senate Democrats’ votes against four Reynolds nominees to the state judicial nominating commission caused those nominations to fail. Nominees require approval of two-thirds of the Senate.
Democrats said Reynolds is violating a state law that says nominees to the judicial nominating commissions must be made without consideration of political affiliation. Of the current nine commissioners, eight are registered Republicans and the ninth is a former Republican who has since claimed Libertarian leanings, Senate Democrats said.
“We think it is very clear that the governor is openly violating this part of the law, both the spirit and the letter,” said Sen. Zach Wahls, leader of the minority Senate Democrats from Coralville. “We have at this point a very general concern about the politicization of the state judicial nominating commission by the governor, and don’t think it’s plausible that you could get to nine out of nine members be Republicans or this right-wing independent.”
Reynolds via email defended her nominations. She did not dispute their partisan affiliations, but argued that all were well-qualified.
“I nominate highly qualified commissioners who share my judicial philosophy and want judges who will stand for the rule of law,” Reynolds said. “It is shameful that Senate Democrats chose to play political games on such an important issue.”
Wahls said state records are not sufficient to determine whether the nominees to judicial nominating commissions of previous governors, including Republican Terry Branstad and Democrats Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack, were more politically diverse than Reynolds’.
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