Staff Editorial

Republicans haven't made the case for judicial reform

The artwork on the interior of the dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The artwork on the interior of the dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

It is important not to understate the significance of the judicial reform package introduced by Republican legislators this week.

A bill in the Iowa House Judiciary Committee would drastically change Iowa’s process for selecting judges, overhauling a system that has served Iowa well for more than 50 years. A shift of this magnitude deserves long and careful consideration, which we worry Republican legislative leaders are not prepared to offer.

Under the current system, adopted in the Iowa Constitution by voters in 1962, licensed attorneys across the state elect half the members of the state and district judicial nominating commissions, while the governor appoints the other half. Those panels then vet applicants for judgeships, a process that many legal experts say strikes a healthy balance between professional and political oversight.

House Study Bill 10, proposed by Iowa Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, would remove the role of licensed attorneys in filling the nominating commissions.

Instead, the governor and legislative leaders would select commissioners, at least half of whom would have to be lawyers.

Republicans hope to push through these changes by amending the state code, rather than through a constitutional amendment, a higher hurdle that requires voters’ approval. Even if that is technically legal, it would be a grave mistake. Iowans deserve the opportunity to consider the options and cast ballots for or against.

While Republicans have made vague suggestions over the years that they might consider amending the judicial nominating process, they rarely have discussed specific changes in public. This bill is just days old and appears to be on the fast track for approval from the Legislature and governor.

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To underscore how hastily this proposal has been brought forth, consider that when The Gazette editorial board met with Gov. Kim Reynolds just eight days ago, she said she didn’t know what would be in the bill.

“I’m learning more of this as we look into it and understand more about it, but I have indicated I would be willing to take a look at it,” Reynolds told us.

Less than a week later, on the same day the bill was published, Reynolds signaled she would support it.

Critics of the existing process say the judicial system should be accountable to the voters through their elected representatives. That rationale simply doesn’t square with Republicans’ plan to rewrite the rules without a statewide referendum.

If there are defects in the constitution and voters are demanding a louder voice, reformers should have no problem making their case to voters. Until then, they should leave the process alone.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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