Iowa Court Hears Fight Over Judicial Nominating Process

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A group of  lawyers and state legislators urged the Iowa Court of Appeals on Wednesday to rule they have standing to make their case at trial that a recent change to the process for appointing appellate judges violates the Iowa Constitution.

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

Cedar Rapids attorney Bob Rush told a five-judge panel of the appellate court the plaintiffs’ lawsuit should go to trial because of the overarching public importance of the constitutional issues they raised.

“The issues before the court today are of significant and historic importance,” he told the judges. “We submit this affects every Iowan, whether you live in the country or in town. You are affected.”

Assistant Attorney General David Ranscht responded by telling the judges that the only issue before the court is whether the plaintiffs have standing to bring this case. He said all of the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs “are just disagreements with the law,” adding “that doesn’t meet the requirement for standing.”

The Iowa legislature in April passed an amendment that altered the composition of the State Judicial Nominating Commission, which sends three nominees for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals to the governor, who makes the appointment.

Prior to the change, the governor appointed eight members of the 17-member commission, Iowa lawyers elected eight members, and the senior member of the Supreme Court other than the chief justice chaired the commission. Under the amendment, the governor makes nine appointments and the chairperson is elected from among the commission members, thus removing the senior justice and giving the political appointees a majority.

The change, which enabled Republican Governor Kim Reynolds to appoint a majority of the commission, politicized the judicial-selection process, Rush argued. That, he said, is contrary to the intent of Iowans who in 1962 voted to amend the Iowa Constitution to move from electing judges to the current merit-selection system.

Rush – along with 11 other plaintiffs that include lawyers, state legislators and current or former members of the commission – argued in their suit that besides politicizing the process, the Republican-dominated Legislature violated the “one subject” requirement of the Iowa Constitution in the bill that changed the makeup of the nominating commission.

The change was included in an appropriations bill that contained more than one subject, and the amendment revising the judicial nominating process was not expressed in the title of the bill.

A Polk County District Court judge ruled in May that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring the suit and dismissed it.

“We think the district court got it wrong in denying standing to the individual plaintiffs,” Rush told the judges Wednesday.

But, even if the appeals court holds the plaintiffs do not have standing, he argued that the standing requirement should be waived under an exception recognized by the Iowa Supreme Court for a matter of “great public importance and interest in our system of government.”

Ranscht, however, argued that exception, while recognized, has never actually been applied in Iowa and should not be applied in this case. The “great public importance” exception “boils down to you know it when you see it,” he said, “and this isn’t it.”

Judge Michael Mullins suggested there may never be a great public importance exception, and asked, “How do you get there without looking at the underlying merits?”

“I don’t think they can be divorced,” Rush responded.

Judge Sharon Soorholtz-Greer questioned whether the courts should be second-guessing decision made by the Legislature.

“Shouldn’t we be concerned with interference with other branches of government,” she asked, “as opposed to responding to actions we don’t happen to agree with, or that we agree with?”

Ranscht agreed: “We don’t want to have every legislative debate continue in the courtroom.”

It is unclear when the judges will issue their ruling.

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