Staff Columnist

Iowa GOP courts plan isn't fair or balanced. It's reckless

The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

One of these days, a legislative majority driven by rigid ideology, its outraged partisan base or the largesse of its biggest donors will pass reckless legislation curtailing the rights or liberties of you or someone you know. Maybe you’ll turn to the state’s courts, with a plea to apply the brakes, as they have so many times in our history.

But those brake lines are being sliced as we speak. Republicans who now run the Statehouse are holding the cutters. They’re determined to make the state’s courts from top to bottom a wholly owned subsidiary of partisan politics, undermining Iowa’s 55-year constitutional commitment to keeping politics out of the selection of judges and justices.

GOP lawmakers want to erase the sensible balance voters enshrined in our constitution in 1962, using a convoluted bill sure to be bulldozed to passage. They know such a plan would never hold up under voters’ strict scrutiny as a constitutional amendment. It’s reckless and gutless, a winning combination in today’s politics.

For five decades, judicial nominating commissions were split between gubernatorial appointees and members elected by lawyers with a stake in maintaining Iowa’s nationally respected courts system. Under the GOP plan, commissioners will be picked entirely by politicians, including the governor and legislative majority and minority leaders.

If you’re keeping score, that means the State Judicial Nominating Commission, which selects nominees to the Supreme Court, will have 12 members picked by Republicans and four by Democrats. The chair, currently filled by a long-serving justice, will come from the committee’s politically slanted membership.

Also, Reynolds’ appointees no longer will be subject to Senate confirmation.

“We just want to make sure it’s fair and not political,” Gov. Kim Reynolds told our editorial board last week. This is the governor who has filled all eight of her slots on the state commission with Republicans.

Reynolds and Republicans insist allowing thousands of attorneys to elect lawyers as commission members isn’t representative of or accountable to Iowans.

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But what about legislative leaders, elected to their leadership roles by members of partisan caucuses behind closed doors? In a Legislature full of politicians, they are the most overtly political. As leaders, they’re mainly accountable to lawmakers and their party. They recruit candidates, craft strategy and raise mountains of money. Remember former Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, who tossed the Iowa GOP more than $500,000 in leftover campaign cash after kissing his career goodbye?

In a truly “fair and not political system,” these folks would not be picking commissioners. Under the GOP plan, it will be cronies and donors galore.

Cut through the “fair and balanced” malarkey and what you have is a GOP drive to build a court system that renders rulings more to its liking. It wants judges and justices who simply exclaim “Ole!” as its legislative bulls run through our constitutional china shop. It wants to put an elephant-sized thumb on the scales of justice in this state.

But smashing up institutions serving us well is what now passes for conservatism in Iowa. Nothing sensible is safe. There are no brakes.

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

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