Attorneys Spar Over Nominating Process for Iowa Judges

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – An Iowa judge said during a hearing Friday he will rule soon on a challenge to a state law that critics say politicized the selection of appeals court judges in violation of the Iowa Constitution.

Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

Iowa’s Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill in the middle of the night late in April that gave Republican Governor Kim Reynolds authority to appoint nine members of the 17-member commission that nominates judges for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Des Moines attorney Thomas Duff claims in a lawsuit filed last month that giving the governor the power to appoint a majority of the commission politicizes the process, in violation of a provision of the Iowa Constitution that established a nonpartisan merit-selection system in 1962.

Duff argues he was harmed by the change because he was denied a shot at becoming a judge on the Iowa Court of Appeals when the newly constituted commission did not pick him as a nominee.

Before the change by the Legislature, the commission was equally divided between members appointed by the governor and members elected by Iowa lawyers, and it was chaired by a senior justice on the state Supreme Court. The legislation removed the Supreme Court justice from the commission, and gave the commissioners the power to pick a chairperson.

Iowa was one of the first states to adopt the so-called “Missouri Plan” of selecting state court judges, when voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a merit system in 1962. Commissions at the district court and appellate court levels screen applicants for judgeships and forward names to the governor, who makes the appointment.

However, the constitutional amendment left the door open for the Legislature to change the makeup of the nominating commissions, which is what lawmakers did last spring for the appellate nominating commission.

Duff’s attorney, Bob Rush of the Cedar Rapids firm Rush & Nicholson, told Polk County District Court Judge Joseph Seidlin in a hearing Friday that the legislation “dramatically changed the merit-based system of nominating judges to a politically controlled process.”

Rush told the judge, who is weighing Duff’s motion for a temporary injunction and the state’s motion for dismissal, that the elected commission members’ votes were diluted by the political appointees’ votes.

“As a result of that, the system allows for the political control of appointments,” Rush said.

Iowa’s Assistant Attorney General David Ranscht, representing Governor Reynolds and other state officials named in the suit, disputed Rush’s math.

“The lawyers’ ability to elect members of the commission is not diluted,” he said. “The lawyers always have been eight of the 17. There is no dilution.”

Ranscht also argued that the suit presumes members appointed by the governor will vote as a bloc and members elected by lawyers will vote as a bloc, which he said has not been the case.

Moreover, he said, while it’s true all nine of the governor’s appointees are Republicans, that’s because Republicans hold the governor’s office, which can change when a Democrat is elected governor.

Rush urged the judge to issue a temporary injunction, even though the law is in effect, because it has not yet been published in the Iowa Code.

The attorney general’s office, however, challenged Duff’s standing to seek an injunction or to bring the suit in the first place, because he cannot show that he has been harmed by the change in the makeup of the commission.

While Duff says he wants to apply for future openings on the court, Ranscht said “a person does not have standing because they think they will be injured in the future.”

Judge Seidlin took the case under advisement and said he will rule on the motions as soon as possible.

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