In Iowa, when there’s an opening on the state Supreme Court, people apply for the job.
They’re interviewed for the job by a State Nominating Commission. The commission confers and then votes on three nominees, or finalists, to send to the Iowa governor.
The governor appoints one of the three to the court.
The process, instituted by the late Gov. Robert Ray, has been praised for taking politics out of the selection of justicial appointments.
This year, the commission spent 25 minutes each interviewing the 21 applicants. For a change, the majority of the applicants were women.
During those interviews, conducted in June, one commissioner asked at least some of the applicants how the commission should consider gender in its decision-making.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Mary Chicchelly, one of those being interviewed, responded that gender should be at the top of the list because a woman’s voice would bring “tremendous dimension and a different perspective to the court.”
“I think that is important for public confidence in the judicial system because half of Iowans are women ... women should have a voice at the table,” Chicchelly said last week from her office in the Linn County Courthouse.
Chicchelly said gender, of course, wasn’t the only factor for the commissioners to consider. But, she said, it should be a priority, given that the seven-member court has no women justices.
Chicchelly said she thought the time was right for her to apply for the job after being a district judge for the past five years.
She also has two daughters, ages 20 and 23, who encouraged her to apply, and she said she wanted to set an example for them — to pursue and work for goals they want to achieve.
‘Why wouldn’t you?’
Anjie Shutts, another applicant and an attorney with the Whitfield & Eddy Law in Des Moines, said the gender issues didn’t drive her to apply this time, but nobody could ignore the “elephant in the room.”
“I think it sent a good message to the state that diversity matters,” Shutts said. “We need different perspectives on the court. All three (nominees) are well-qualified.”
She said she doesn’t know why more women haven’t applied for judicial vacancies over the years. But she thinks it’s because women tend to think they must possess every quality required in a job, while men don’t necessarily feel that way. Women, she said, sometimes need more encouragement and support.
Shutts, who has been an attorney for 22 years, said she initially was intimidated by the process.
She talked it over with family and friends. Her husband said, “Why wouldn’t you?” Her daughters, ages 12 and 15, said the same thing.
“I thought, yes, why not?”
Martin Diaz, an Iowa City attorney who serves on the Judicial Nominating Commission, said that everyone on the commission understood the lack of gender diversity on the court is an issue.
He couldn’t talk about what the commissioners discussed during the selection process but did say people shouldn’t overlook that the three finalists are well-qualified.
He didn’t think a commissioner would select an applicant based solely on gender.
Gender, though, was a factor, and that’s why he asked some of the applicants how the commission should consider it.
He noted even the nominating commission is gender-balanced, with eight men and eight women.
“Each commissioner makes their own determination of what is important when selecting nominees,” Diaz said.
Diaz, who has been on the commission since 2011, likened the selection process to jury deliberations after a trial.
“We talk things through, go over what to consider and then vote,” Diaz said. “There are rules we have to follow.”
Some say the "elephant in the room" couldn't be ignored this time around when a vacancy opened on the Iowa Supreme Court.
Diaz said he wasn’t surprised about the number of women applicants this time but was a little surprised about the lower number of male applicants.
“This was a difficult process because we had so many good choices,” he said.
Shutts, the Des Moines attorney, said she would apply again for judicial openings.
“In a weird way, I enjoyed it,” she said. “My daughters asked if I was disappointed (in not being nominated), and I said yes. But I also said you can’t be appointed if you don’t apply.”
Chicchelly said she, too, was disappointed in not being named. But she thinks she “added to the conversation” and hopes she inspired others to consider applying the next time.