Iowa legislator seeks oversight of Iowa Supreme Court

Bill would have allowed lawmakers to question justices, override rulings

The Iowa Supreme Court hears cases in this room at the Judicial Building in Des Moines. A legislative proposal - killed
The Iowa Supreme Court hears cases in this room at the Judicial Building in Des Moines. A legislative proposal — killed on Tuesday — would have allowed lawmakers to questions Supreme Court justices over rulings they didn’t like and then override the rulings by a two-thirds majority vote. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

DES MOINES — A proposal to allow legislators to question Supreme Court justices and overturn their decisions found little support among lobbyists, subcommittee members and, perhaps, most importantly, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman.

“It’s done,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said Tuesday.

Although he is among Republicans lawmakers who frequently criticize decisions by “unelected judges” and “radical courts,” Holt said there were too many problems with the bill.

House File 109 was proposed by Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, as a “judicial accountability bill.”

Salmon, Holt and other Republicans have complained that the Iowa Supreme Court has created new law in some cases, such as the Varnum decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and in 2018 found a right to abortion in the state constitution.

Salmon’s plan would have provided the Legislature with a process for reviewing — and potentially overturning — any state Supreme Court decision that invalidates a law or has the effect of creating new law.

A spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures was not aware of any state with such a review process.


Salmon said the only way the Legislature can address what it considers errors by the court is to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voter approval. A proposed amendment must be passed by the House and Senate in two consecutive General Assemblies before being submitted to voters.

That is a “burdensome and laborious” process, she said during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

“This would level the playing field,” Salmon said.

Or tilt it in the Legislature’s direction, lobbyists and lawmakers said.

The bill proposes that any Supreme Court decision that invalidates existing state law or, in lawmakers’ opinions, creates new law, would not take effect for a year. During that time, the Legislature could compel the justices to answer questions about their decision in a public hearing. Justices could change their votes, or the decision itself, based on the results of the hearing.

A two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate could overturn the decision.

That could make it harder to correct Supreme Court decisions lawmakers might not like, Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said.

Using the court’s finding of a right to an abortion in the Iowa Constitution as an example, Hite said lawmakers who disagree with that ruling are currently using the constitutional amendment process to declare there is no constitutional right to an abortion.

“And never does it require more than a simple majority of this Legislature” to put an amendment on the ballot for voter approval, Hite said. “So my worry is that actually, by passing this bill, we make it harder for the Legislature to have the final say.”

“And I agree the Legislature should have — and I believe does have — the final say,” he added.

In addition to concerns about the practical application of the bill, others raised constitutional issues.


“This is a separation of powers issue,” Kelly Myers of the Iowa County Attorneys Association said. “It is the role of the courts, frankly, to determine if the laws that are made in this building indeed hold up under the constitution.”

The proposal doesn’t hold to the idea of three separate, coequal branches of government — the executive, the legislative and the judicial, Damian Thompson of Iowa Safe Schools said.

“The bill not only annihilates the three branches concept, but it also completely castrates the practice of judicial review,” Thompson said. Requiring justices to answer questions from legislators about their decisions is a “completely inappropriate concept.”

The Legislature already has authority to override a governor’s veto and HF 109 would allow lawmakers to overrule the court, said Peter Hird of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO.

“One branch to rule them all doesn’t really seem like the intent that the framers of our government had in mind,” he said.

What they had in mind, according to Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, was for the court to speak truth to power.

“Let’s face it, the Legislature has the power, but we get it wrong sometimes,” she said. “And when we do, and especially when we get it wrong in a way that inappropriately and unconstitutionally harms a category of people, a population of people who do not have any power and can’t speak for themselves, I appreciate the fact that our judicial branch is there and generally gets it right.”

Hite agreed with the reasoning behind Salmon’s bill, but said he couldn’t support it.

“It’s not the solution,” Holt said, in explaining his decision not to take up the bill in full committee.


“We need a good process for appointing Supreme Court justices,” he said, adding that he’s comfortable with the process now in place that gives the governor a majority of the appointees on the Judicial Nominating Commission.

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