Staff Columnist

Republican judge plan gets a dark money boost

(Dreamstime/TNS)

gavel
(Dreamstime/TNS) gavel

Legislative Republicans pushing hard to change the way Iowa selects its judges claim to want “fairness,” “balance” and “accountability.” But the fact they’re getting an assist from the Washington, D.C.-based Judicial Crisis Network tells us much more about their darker motives.

If you’re just tuning in, Republicans are determined to undermine our current merit-based judicial selection system, enshrined in Iowa’s Constitution by voters in 1962. It created judicial nominating commissions to vet the qualifications of potential judges and justices all the way up to the Iowa Supreme Court. The governor makes the final pick from commission nominees.

Membership on those commissions is balanced between gubernatorial appointees and commissioners elected by licensed lawyers. That balance is expressly intended to emphasize legal experience while keeping politics at arm’s length. It has worked well for five decades.

But Republicans want to replace lawyers’ picks with commissioners appointed by partisan legislative leaders — meaning politicians will choose every member. A process that’s supposed to be shielded from politics would be defined by it.

Not surprisingly, the change immediately allows Republicans to pick more of the Iowans who will be selecting our judges. It’s a power grab, plain and simple.

Speaking of power and grabbing, in walks Judicial Crisis Network. The group has launched a website in Iowa, fairjusticeforIowa.com, and is promoting a video on social media claiming “liberal trial lawyers have the power to pick our judges.”

That’s pretty rich, considering Republicans already currently hold 95 seats on Iowa nominating commissions at all levels, compared with 47 Democrats and 12 no-party members. Those figures were compiled by Justice Not Politics, an Iowa-based group opposing the GOP plan. The legislative push would make those numbers even more lopsided.

During the George W. Bush administration, Judicial Crisis Network was the Judicial Confirmation Network, advocating for Bush’s judicial nominees. After Barack Obama got elected, it changed it name because we were, apparently, in a crisis. They also go by Judicial Network, with a “C” to be named later.

According to campaign finance watchdog opensecrets.org, the group spent millions of dollars in 2016 on efforts to stop the U.S. Senate from considering Obama’s nominee for an open seat on the Supreme Court. It then spent another chunk of cash to push for President Donald Trump’s pick to fill the seat.

The group deals in dark money, meaning it does not disclose its donors. But opensecrets.org found, according to tax documents, that nearly all of its money came from the Wellspring Committee, which gave it $23.5 million in 2016. Wellspring also is a dark money conduit, but documents in 2017 indicate 90 percent of its bucks came from a single unnamed donor.

Wellspring also gave the group millions to promote Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. The network has dabbled darkly in state court and attorney general races, as well as helping efforts aimed at changing the way judges are selected. Sounds familiar.

So the Iowa GOP’s drive for more “accountability” is being cheered on by dark money warriors who have spent tens of millions of dollars waging political battles to seize control of our courts. If these are the sort of folks who want us to change the way we pick judges, maybe we should get a second opinion.

But, of course, the ultimate goal they all share is creating a judicial system from D.C. to Des Moines that simply rubber-stamps right-wing policy objectives. And that’s could mean bad news ahead for the rights, liberties and livelihoods of thousands of Iowans.

The courts we’ve depended on to hold the line on such extremism may not have our backs. Talk about a judicial crisis.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

Note: Numbers attributed to Justice Not Politics have been corrected. They were incorrect due to a math error.

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