Staff Columnist

Propose an amendment, or leave Iowa's courts alone

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)

Republicans who will be running the Legislature next week tossed us a few more breadcrumbs over the holidays as to their plans for hijacking Iowa’s judicial selection process.

Too little to make a Christmas stuffing, but enough to warn of indigestion ahead.

The tidbits came in a story by Statehouse bureau reporter Erin Murphy, who found GOP leaders willing to explain their motives for seeking changes in the more than five-decades-old merit selection process. A constitutional amendment approved in 1962 put in place current judicial nominating commissions, made up of equal numbers of gubernatorial appointments and lawyers elected by peers. Those commissions vet applicants’ qualifications and forward multiple nominees to the governor, who makes the final picks.

It’s a system designed to, as much as possible, insulate our judiciary from partisan political influence. So, naturally, Republicans who already control two branches of government are determined to huff and puff and blow that insulation away.

“There are several people in our caucus that have made this a priority and have looked at our system,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, according to Murphy’s story. “Frankly, over 20 years-plus there have been a lot of decisions that legislators feel conflicted with what they wanted to do or their intent.”

So the main target is our State Judicial Nominating Commission, which picks three finalists for each open slot on the Iowa Supreme Court. It’s made up of eight gubernatorial appointees, currently all Republicans, and eight lawyer members. It’s chaired by the most senior Supreme Court Justice who is not the chief justice. Currently that’s Justice David Wiggins, who was appointed by former Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.

Over the years, the Supreme Court has ruled in ways Republicans don’t like, including extending marriage rights to same-sex couples and upholding a woman’s right to seek an abortion. These rulings have hardly been close calls.

Our high court has repeatedly insisted lawmakers show constitutionally compelling reasons for denying equal protection under the law to our fellow citizens, beyond wowing the GOP base. That’s a big legal bummer for the current majority under the Golden Dome of Wisdom.

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And if you can’t clear that high constitutional bar and win these cases with solid arguments and sound interpretations of the law, you go after the judges and the system that appoints them. Republicans are talking about removing lawyers from the process, replacing them with gubernatorial political appointees.

“Right now the (state) commission is made up of eight lawyers that are only elected by lawyers. So the general public has no say in who those people are. ... So maybe balancing that out so normal citizens have a greater role than just attorneys,” Whitver said.

Do lawyers know they’re not part of the public, or normal? You tell them.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said Republicans want to make sure “a single entity” doesn’t have an outsized role in selections. Unless that entity is the GOP, apparently.

“We may want to just make sure that there’s good balance there so that people get consideration and that the governor has a group of people that she can choose a judge from that at least shares her world view,” Upmeyer said.

We have a balance now, with half of the commission appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and half elected by lawyers. So you’ve got the “public,” at least a Republican portion of it, and lawyers, who have some expertise on matters judicial.

Republicans want to get rid of the lawyers and their expertise. These are, after all, the days of guts that are so much smarter than brains.

And they want Reynolds to be able to pick justices and judges who fit her political “world view,” which is precisely what our current process was designed to avoid.

The balanced and less political must become unbalanced and much more political. A good system that’s worked well for decades must be short-circuited so Republicans get rulings they like.

Well, at least this is what they ran on last fall, said no one, credibly.

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Speaking of not mentioning this during the campaign, I say if Republicans want to undo this system, they should have the guts to do it through a constitutional amendment and let Iowans vote on it. Instead of passing some rush-job bill, put it on the ballot, like our leaders did in 1962.

On June 4, 1962, 57 percent of Iowa voters supported approval of the “Iowa Plan,” which had bipartisan support in two consecutive General Assemblies.

In a state where, at that time, judges and justices were elected on partisan ballots, and where empty seats between elections were filled by governors, the motive for the amendment was crystal clear.

“Get our judges out of partisan politics and keep partisan politics out of our courts. A judge’s political party should have nothing to do with his judicial decisions,” said then-state Rep. David Stanley, R-Muscatine, in a letter to The Gazette on June 2, 1962. “When you have to go to court, you want an independent judge, not a political judge.”

The Gazette favored the amendment.

“A ‘yes’ vote for this proposed amendment will mean an improved court system for Iowa. For in the future, judges will be chosen on the basis of their performance in office, not on the basis of their party politics,” we opined the Sunday before the vote.

Iowans created this system and they now deserve a say in what comes next. If altering the selection process is such a great idea, put it to a vote. It’s a long amendment process, but what’s your hurry? Or, are you really jolting the foundation of our legal system for short-term political gain?

Otherwise, leave our courts alone.

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

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