Government

Iowa Chief Justice silent - maybe? - on picking judges

Some lawmakers looking at ways to give governor more sway

Chief Justice Mark Cady
Chief Justice Mark Cady

DES MOINES — Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady didn’t weigh in on the developing controversy over the state’s process for picking judges Wednesday during his annual Condition of the Judiciary speech. Or did he?

Judges and justices in Iowa’s courtrooms are chosen under a system widely praised as one that curtails the role of politics in the process.

However, in the run-up to the legislative session that opened this week, Republican lawmakers have discussed making changes to the 17-member state judicial nominating committee that would hand the governor more power.

GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has made one appointment to the state Supreme Court and faces making another, has signaled her openness to adopting changes.

According to Republicans who support a change, the system voters added to the state constitution in 1962 gives lawyers too much influence in the process.

Of the 17 members of the state commission that forwards appeals court and Iowa Supreme Court finalists, eight are appointed by the governor and eight by licensed Iowa lawyers. The committee is rounded out by the most senior justice who is not the chief.

The governor picks from the among the finalists vetted by the commission. Voters later decide whether to retain the justices.

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Cady’s only mention of the process during his speech Wednesday was in thanking “those who serve on the judicial nominating commissions and Gov. Reynolds for their commitment to selecting the best people to serve as judges.”

“Iowa has a strong national reputation for fairness and impartiality,” he said.

That didn’t sound to Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, chairman of the Justice Systems Appropriations Subcommittee, like the chief justice was taking sides.

“I would have been disappointed if he had brought it up,” Worthan said. “Knowing Chief Justice Cady, he’s very cognizant of the separation of powers. That’s not within the court’s purview. That’s within the Legislature’s and the executive branch’s purview as to what that process will be. He would be entering into a realm that they don’t have a say.”

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids, the ranking Democrat on the Justice System subcommittee, heard the same speech and thought Cady handled it “quite well.”

“He didn’t address the judicial nominating process, but he did by pointing out we have a high-quality court system based on merit-based selection,” said Hogg, a lawyer and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Although it’s Republicans who have been talking about changes, not all of them think it’s necessary or a good idea.

“I don’t see a lot of problems with the current system,” Worthan said. “If somebody can point out some problems, they haven’t yet to me.”

Each of Iowa’s 14 judicial districts has an 11-member nominating commission, and there is a separate commission of 17 members at the state level for nominations to the Iowa Supreme Court and state appeals court.

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So far talk of changes has centered on the state commission, but until a bill is filed there are no specifics. A bill filed last year in the Senate would have removed lawyers from the process, replacing them with gubernatorial appointments.

The current system gives the legal industry too much clout, according to some critics — and they believe, too much of it Democratic.

Worthan said it appears to him the lawyers are “pretty well evenly divided between Republican and Democrat. It doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of political problem there.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said several members of his 32-member GOP caucus have made altering the nomination process for the Supreme Court a priority. That seems to stem from decisions on social issues — same-sex marriage and abortion, for example — that rankled conservatives.

“Frankly, over 20 years-plus there have been a lot of decisions that legislators feel conflicted with what they wanted to do, or their intent,” Whitver said.

House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Urbandale, wouldn’t predict what his chamber will do, but said a decision would be independent of the court.

“That’s a decision for the Legislature to weigh in on more than taking cues from the court,” he said, adding it’s “worth taking a look at. There are several different ways people could go on that. We’ll look at what members want to do.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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