Staff Columnist

Iowa's courts may be the next target

The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The courtroom for the Iowa Supreme Court at the Iowa Judicial Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

In the great Iowa guess-off to determine what exactly Republicans will do next with their Statehouse trifecta, messing with the courts has emerged as a possibility.

On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters she would be “open” to GOP proposals for changing the way Iowa picks its Supreme Court justices. She mentioned no specifics and didn’t say why we should tinker with Iowa’s nonpartisan merit-selection process.

Early next year, Reynolds will make her second selection to the state’s highest court with the retirement of Justice Daryl Hecht this week for health reasons. Instead of simply picking a justice, as presidents do, candidates first will be vetted and publicly interviewed by a 16-member State Judicial Nominating Commission, which includes eight gubernatorial appointees and eight members elected by lawyers in each congressional district. The panel is chaired by the senior Supreme Court justice who is not the chief justice.

The panel will give Reynolds three choices. She gets the final pick. Justices face regular retention votes.

It’s a system added to the state Constitution by voters in 1962, with hopes of reducing the influence of partisan politics on the state’s courts.

Thanks to Reynolds and her predecessor Terry Branstad, all eight appointed members of the commission are Republicans. But that’s not good enough for today’s GOP, which assails institutions it can’t control and grabs the reins by any means necessary. See Wisconsin and Michigan.

Maybe legislative Republicans here will pursue a constitutional amendment giving the governor the power to pick judges. That would take votes in consecutive General Assemblies and wouldn’t reach the ballot until 2022. An amendment resolution wouldn’t need Reynolds’ signature.

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There’s talk of lawmakers tinkering with the makeup of the nominating commission through a statute to stack the deck. But it’s not entirely clear how much they can do to tip a system created expressly as a bulwark against the sort of political power grab they favor.

Or maybe they revive a misguided Senate bill requiring the seven-member court to muster five votes to overturn a statute.

Do you remember anyone campaigning on this? I do not.

But this is basically here we go again. After the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling striking down Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage, the righteous right kicked its court-bashing campaign into high gear. Three justices lost retention votes and more than a few Republicans called for changing how judges are picked.

Now the issue is abortion. In striking down a 72-hour abortion waiting period, the Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Iowa women have a fundamental right to access abortion services. That doesn’t bode well for the even more restrictive “heartbeat” bill making its way through the courts.

There’s nothing that irks Republicans more than Iowans possessing civil rights not endorsed by Republicans. So now we’ve got to alter our court system to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Controlling two branches of government is not enough. Not even close. Look what they’ve done to local government authority.

Iowa’s big problem is not its courts. It’s politicians determined to stick a big, fat thumb on the scales of justice with hopes of pulling Iowa backward. We should fight them every step of the way.

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

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