Gender-balance rule upheld for Iowa judicial selection panel | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Gender-balance rule upheld for Iowa judicial selection panel

Although an injunction was denied, the case will move ahead as the judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the suit.

(CN)  — A federal judge denied two Iowan’s bid for an injunction barring the enforcement of a state statute that mandates an equal number of male and female elected members of the commission that interviews applicants for the state’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. But the dispute remains alive because the judge also denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

Eight of Iowa’s 17-person State Judicial Nominating Commission that vets appellate court applicants are elected by Iowa lawyers, two from each of the state’s four congressional districts. A state statute enacted in 1987 requires that one elected member from each district must be male and the other female to achieve gender balance. The governor appoints the remaining nine members of the commission and is limited to appointing no more than a simple majority of those members from the same gender.

Plaintiffs Rachel Raak Law of Correctionville and Micah Broekemeier of Iowa City would like to be elected to serve on the commission in their respective districts, but the seats open in their districts must be filled with a person of the opposite sex.

They argued in a May 24 lawsuit that the gender-balance requirement means they are not eligible simply on the basis of their sex, not on the basis of their qualifications. That, they argue, violates their equal protection rights under the Constitution.

In a ruling issued Nov. 20, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose denied both the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction and the state’s motion to dismiss the case. Assuming there is no appeal of Rose’s ruling, the case will go to trial on the merits.

Wencong Fa, senior attorney for the California-based Pacific legal Foundation, which is representing the Iowa plaintiffs, said in a statement Monday to Courthouse News that they are disappointed in the decision “and think that the court got it wrong.

"The Iowa gender quota prevents qualified individuals like our clients from running for the Judicial Nominating Commission solely because of their gender. Because the quota deprives people of opportunity based on their gender, it violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution," Fa said. "We are considering our next steps.”

A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office declined to comment Monday.

Rose noted that for the first 25 years of Iowa’s State Judicial Nominating Commission’s existence, from 1963 to 1987, Iowa lawyers did not elect a single woman to serve on the commission; all women prior to 1987 were gubernatorial appointees.

“This absence occurred even though women consistently served as appointed members of the Commission and were the majority of political appointees by the mid-1980s,” Rose wrote. “This suggests there were many women interested in the Commission and qualified to serve.”

To rectify that, she wrote, the Iowa Legislature in 1987 enacted the statute that requires Iowa lawyers to elect an equal number of men and women to the commission.

While denying the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, Rose denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case, because both plaintiffs have standing to bring their case and because they can show an injury that is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s enforcement of the gender-balance statute.

In balancing the interests of the parties, Rose wrote that granting an injunction could halt future nominating processes for the Iowa Supreme Court and Iowa Court of Appeals pending resolution of this lawsuit.

The Iowa Code provides that “if any provision of this chapter is preliminarily enjoined, no judicial nominating commission shall meet to nominate persons to serve as a judge or justice while the preliminary injunction is in effect.”

“Put simply,” Rose wrote, “the State of Iowa would face an enormous harm because it would not be able to fill any vacancies that occur on the Iowa Supreme Court or Iowa Court of Appeals. Accordingly, the court concludes a balance of the equities shows defendant would suffer significant harm if it granted the requested preliminary injunction.”

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