Government

Iowa attorneys warn changes to judicial nominating would politicize courts

(File photo) The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Suspended across the dome is the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The emblem, painted on canvas and suspended on wire, was placed there as a

reminder of Iowa's efforts to preserve the Union during the Civil War. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Suspended across the dome is the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The emblem, painted on canvas and suspended on wire, was placed there as a reminder of Iowa's efforts to preserve the Union during the Civil War. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Attorneys voiced opposition to legislation advanced by Republican legislators Wednesday that would diminish their role in the selection of Iowa’s district court judges and Supreme Court justices.

They warned that having the governor and legislators select people to serve on judicial nominating commissions would politicize the courts more than the current practice of the bar association selecting half those commissioners who then nominate judges.

Despite their counsel, legislation to change Iowa’s 57-year-old judicial nominating process — Senate Study Bill 1101 and House Study Bill 110 — was advanced by judiciary subcommittees in both chambers. The bills will be available for full committee debate next week.

David Brown of the Iowa Academy of Trial Lawyers called the proposal a “radical change” to a court system that has been the “gold standard for entire United States.”

He encouraged lawmakers to talk to people who practiced in Iowa courts before the current merit-based selection process was approved by voters in 1962.

“They’ll tell you how bad it was,” Brown told the House panel.

Many of those who spoke against the proposal warned that it would politicize the court system. Connie Ryan of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund said the bill’s backers “are, with intent, on politicizing the court.”

“Without doubt, this bill would do great harm to Iowans and their ability to have a fair day in court,” Ryan said. “Iowans understand this legislation is intended to advance a specific political agenda. You will place our courts in harm’s way simply because one small group in our state is frustrated with a handful of court decisions.”

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That group, The Family Leader, is frustrated when good legislation “is just going to be undone by activist judges, in our view, exceeding their rightful, constitutional authority in many cases,” the group’s attorney said.

“Iowa has one of the most activist supreme courts in the country with rulings against law enforcement, a ruling ‘finding’ a right to abortion and redefining marriage all in direct defiance of your duly passed laws,” said Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel for The Family Leader and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

It’s too late to prevent the politicization of the courts, Des Moines attorney William Gustoff told the subcommittee.

“The judiciary is a branch of government, so I think it’s naive to argue that you can keep politics out of the courts,” he said.

Having trial attorneys who will plead cases before the judges they nominate “is ripe for conflict of interest,” he said.

Gustoff, whose law partner is Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, said the Legislature should increase transparency and accountability, which would be increased if lawmakers “who are known by the people, who are elected by the people” selected commissioners — half who would be attorneys and half non-attorneys.

At the Senate subcommittee hearing, Jim Carney representing the Iowa Bar Association told senators the changes would “hyper-infuse” politics into the judicial system.

“It will mainline politics into this,” he said.

Rep. Jo Oldson, D-Des Moines, who did not sign HSB 110, hoped lawmakers would slow the rush to change the nominating process “so we understand what’s in the bill” that was submitted Monday.

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She rejected the argument that the change would increase transparency because if lawmakers choose the nominating commission members, “all the decisions will be made inside this building,” she said.

“This feels like a huge political bill,” she said.

Judiciary Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said there will be ample opportunity for public input including, perhaps, a public hearing.

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

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