Amid all the political tumult in recent years, two pillars of good government in Iowa have remained strong and steady. They are our process for drawing congressional and legislative districts and our system for selecting nominees to the state’s courts.
Since the early 1960s, Iowa has selected judges using judicial nominating commissions, with members both appointed by the governor and selected by lawyers. Commission picks are then forwarded to the governor, who makes the final call. Judges then face periodic retention votes.
Since 1980, redistricting in Iowa has been handled by a nonpartisan legislative agency that draws maps using a strict set of criteria, but no political considerations. The “Iowa Model,” unfortunately, has been adopted by only a handful of states.
Both systems are in the news. This week, retiring Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager urged Iowans to keep the retention system, which he described as “constantly under attack.”
“It is the best process around,” Zager said. “We must do whatever we can to endorse that.”
On Sept. 18, the National Press Club will hold a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., titled “Drawn Out: How Iowa Got Redistricting Right.” It’s a great chance for a panel of Iowa experts to share the story of our nonpartisan process in a nation’s capital deeply divided in no small part because of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.
The big question in Iowa is, will these pillars be shaken in this fall’s elections?
Zager’s right. Critics of Iowa’s judicial selection, mainly Republicans in recent years, have advocated making our system look more like the federal process, with the governor nominating judges confirmed by the Iowa Senate. But anyone who has watched how deeply flawed and partisan the federal judicial nomination process has become should be wary of making Iowa a carbon copy.
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Iowa’s process hardly is politics-free. All eight members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission — which nominates Supreme Court justices — appointed by Govs. Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds are Republicans. They’re joined on the panel by eight lawyers selected by their peers.
But it is far better insulated from partisan politics than the federal system, as well as systems in states where judges are directly elected.
In 2010, three Supreme Court justices were ousted from the court. As wrongheaded as the campaign for their ouster was, it does show Iowans have a say under our current process.
There’s been little talk of changing Iowa’s redistricting process. But in these days of win-at-all-costs tribal partisanship, it seems no institution is truly safe from political plunder.
Iowans should be proud of these pillars, but also vigilant. They should be asking candidates for governor and the Legislature where they stand on protecting these nonpartisan systems. And they deserve clear answers.
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