DES MOINES — An amendment reducing the scope of Republican-backed changes to Iowa’s judicial nominating process was narrowly approved by the House judiciary committee Tuesday, making it somewhat more palatable to the bar and increasing the likelihood it becomes law.
“We think that’s an improvement to the bill because we always maintained and believed that the judicial nominating commissions were working well, both at the state level and the district level,” Iowa State Bar Association lobbyist Jim Carney said about a change that leaves the current process largely unchanged for Iowa’s 14 district judicial nominating commissions, where half the members are appointed by the governor and the other half are appointed by Iowa lawyers.
However, the bar still opposes the proposal that would have the governor appoint eight members to the state judicial commission that nominates members of the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate would each appoint two members, and the court would appoint one.
Groups supporting what they call “reforms” to the process still are on board but prefer the original version of House Study Bill 110 that applied changes to the nomination process to district and appeals courts.
“It’s still a good step forward,” said Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity. “We would love for it to apply to everything, but that’s part of the lawmaking process and how things operate in this building.”
The give-and-take was necessary to keep bill on track to reach the desk of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who supports the changes, Klein said.
“I don’t think the amendment would have arrived to the committee if it were not necessary to secure votes,” he said.
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After nearly two-and-a-half hours of closed-door deliberation and public debate, the amendment passed on a voice vote. Democrats could have asked for a roll-call vote but didn’t.
The bill then was approved 11-10, making it eligible for consideration by the full House as early as next week. Similar legislation in the Senate, Senate File 237, is eligible for debate in that chamber.
Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, warned that putting the membership of the Supreme Court nominating commission in the hands of the governor and legislative leaders could lead to justices “appointed by partisan hacks.”
That was a theme of comments by Democrats — that the changes will infuse politics in the judicial nominating process
Rep. Andy McKean of Anamosa, the lone Republican to oppose the bill, warned its supporters “be careful what you pray for.” In this case, the changes “may come back to bite the proponents,” he said.
Opponents of the bill argued that Republicans are seeking the changes because they don’t like the Supreme Court’s decisions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues.
McKean, who practiced law for 35 years, said he hasn’t agreed with all of the court’s decisions but the bill won’t change that.
“We will continue to have decisions that we don’t like because that’s part of what the judicial process is all about,” he said.
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Judiciary committee chair Steve Holt, R-Denison, said the proposal was not about individual cases and decisions. It’s about making the judicial nominating process more representative of Iowans, he said.
He believes a tiny percentage of lawyers who participate in the process “is neither representative of the bar or the people,” Holt said.
“Iowa has a great judicial system, but that doesn’t mean improvement cannot be made,” he said.
Under current law for district nominating commissions, the governor appoints five members and Iowa lawyers presiding in that district appoint five others, while the chief
judge of a district serves as chair of the commission. For state judicial commissions there are 17 members, with eight appointed by the governor and eight appointed by Iowa
lawyers, and the chair is the senior justice of the state Supreme Court who is not the chief justice.
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