Government

Iowa Supreme Court dismisses challenge to 2018 judge's appointment

Sixth Judicial District judge Jason D. Besler addresses Ezekiel Phillips during his sentencing at the Linn County Courth
Sixth Judicial District judge Jason D. Besler addresses Ezekiel Phillips during his sentencing at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. Phillips was convicted of of first-degree murder in the death of Tyrice Douglas, attempted murder of former girlfriend Mone Dotson, going armed with intent and willful injury causing serious injury. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DES MOINES The 2018 appointment of an Eastern Iowa district court judge by Gov. Kim Reynolds will stand, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday, ending a three-year controversy over whether Reynolds had missed the legal deadline for appointing the judge.

Iowa law requires the governor to make an appointment within 30 days after a judicial nominating commission provides the names of qualified candidates, but Reynolds informed Judge Jason Besler of his appointment several days after the deadline. Reynolds said that she verbally picked Besler before the deadline by telling an aide but failed to call Besler or document the selection for days because she was busy with other matters.

The law says if the governor fails to make an appointment, that task falls to the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. However, then-Chief Justice Mark Cady deferred to Reynolds, saying he believed her when she said she verbally made the appointment by the deadline.

Attorney Gary Dickey challenged the appointment in court, saying Besler was improperly appointed and potentially should be removed. After a judge in April 2019 found that Besler had been properly appointed, Dickey appealed.

Besler, of Cedar Rapids, has been on the bench for 2 1/2 years and was retained by voters in the November election.

Five members of the Iowa Supreme Court, three of whom were appointed by the Republican governor, found that since Reynolds and Cady were the only two officials authorized by law to make the appointment and they resolved the issue, the court shouldn’t intervene.

“We conclude that judicial relief is unavailable in these circumstances. As a matter of respect and comity, our chief justice deferred to and accepted the Governor’s decision that the appointment had been made by her on the thirtieth day. There is not reason to second-guess the chief justice’s act of statesmanship,” the court said in its ruling dismissing the case.

Cady died in November 2019.

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One justice didn’t participate in the case, and Justice Brent Appel, the only member of the court appointed by a Democratic governor, said it should have been sent back to a lower court for further consideration. Appel chastised the majority for passing on it, saying the case is a controversy that the court can and should decide.

“We have a job to do. Unlike political branches of government, courts cannot simply refuse to consider matters brought before it by citizens because the matter is controversial or unpleasant,” he said. “We have the obligation to decide cases whether the case is attractive or unattractive, somewhat odd or very odd, controversial or uncontroversial, comfortable or uncomfortable. That is the way we do our job. And I would do it in this case.”

Dickey said he was pleased that the ruling removed doubt about Besler’s authority as a judge.

“Chief Justice Cady’s willingness to defer to Governor Reynolds in order to avoid a constitutional showdown is reminder of his thoughtful statesmanship, which our country could use a little more of in these times,” Dickey said.

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