CEDAR RAPIDS — A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new state law restructuring Iowa’s 57-year-old judicial nominating procedure has been dismissed by a Polk County District Court judge.
The lawsuit filed by Cedar Rapids lawyer Bob Rush, eight Iowa legislators and a Johnson County member of the state nominating commission challenged Senate File 638, which was passed in what they called a “shady deal” in the final hours of the 2019 Iowa legislative session.
Judge Sarah Crane dismissed the challenge, ruling the plaintiffs did not have standing because they could not show direct harm from the changes the Legislature approved in late April.
Gov. Kim Reynolds and others named in the suit were fortunate that the case was dismissed on what Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, called a technicality because the “substance was completely unconstitutional.”
“If I don’t have standing as a legislator, if I don’t have standing as an attorney, and if members of the nominating commission don’t have standing, I don’t know if anyone has standing,” said Meyer, one of the lawmakers to challenge the law.
Meyer said Thursday afternoon he and other plaintiffs were discussing their options, including filing an appeal.
Reynolds called the decision “good news for the rule of law and for Iowans who will have a greater voice in the process of selecting our judges.”
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That was the basis of the argument majority Republicans and Reynolds made for the change. They argued, the attorneys had too much sway in nominating people to fill judicial vacancies.
Before the legislative changes, Iowa’s state judicial nominating commission interviewed applicants to the Iowa Supreme Court and state appeals court before creating a list of finalists. The governor then appointed a judge from that list.
Half of the nominating commission’s members were selected by the licensed lawyers, and half are appointed by the governor, subject to approval by the Iowa Senate. The senior-most Supreme Court justice who was not the chief justice also served on the commission, as its leader.
With the changes, eight commission members are chosen by the bar and the governor appoints nine members.
In challenging the law, Rush, a former legislator, explained that the plaintiffs said lawmakers violated rules against “logrolling,” the inclusion of unrelated matters in one bill.
Legislators also violated the requirement that the title of a bill contain the subject matter to “prevent fraud and surprise.” There is no mention of the judicial nominating commission in the title.
Finally, the plaintiffs call the portion of SF 638 dealing with judicial nominating procedures a violation of the constitutional establishment of coequal branches of government because it changes the selection and term of office for the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Legislature directed the court to elect a chief justice every two years. The term and selection of the chief justice is a matter for the court, not the Legislature, to decide, Rush said.
Underlying the lawsuit — and the unsuccessful legislative opposition to the changes approved on the final day of the session — is a concern that the change “throws politics back into the selection process,” he said.
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Since Iowans approved a constitutional amendment to have judges nominated by panels made of equal numbers of members selected by the bar and the governor and one member from the Supreme Court, politics have not influenced the process, Rush said. Iowa’s process was a model for other states, he said.
The plaintiffs have 30 days to file an appeal.
In addition to Rush and Meyer, state Reps. Art Staed and Liz Bennett of Cedar Rapids, Mary Mascher of Iowa City, Jo Oldson and Rock Olson of Des Moines, Mark Smith of Marshalltown and Mary Wolfe of Clinton — all Democrats, and nominating commission member Martin Diaz of Swisher brought the lawsuit.
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