Iowa Court Tosses Challenges to Judicial Nominating Law

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The Iowa Court of Appeals handed down a pair of rulings Wednesday dismissing lawsuits over changes in the way state appellate judges are picked, finding the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge lawmakers’ actions.

The Iowa Legislature last year enacted a bill that gave the Republican Governor Kim Reynolds more power over the selection of judges to the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals. In response, 12 Iowa lawyers and Democratic legislators sued, arguing the change politicized judicial selection.

The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines, which houses the Iowa Supreme Court. (Photo via Ctjf83/Wikipedia)

When a trial court dismissed that suit for lack of standing, it was refiled with a different plaintiff, and the trial court allowed that version to proceed. But the Court of Appeals threw both cases out Wednesday.

A five-judge panel of the appellate court held in the first suit, Rush v. Reynolds, that none of the plaintiffs – including lawyers, state legislators and current or former members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission – had a sufficient stake in the issue to establish standing to bring the lawsuit.

Likewise, in Wednesday’s second ruling in Duff v. Reynolds, the panel ruled that Des Moines lawyer Thomas Duff also lacks standing. Duff, who had unsuccessfully applied for an opening on the appeals court, argued the change in the nominating process was a factor in his not being selected. The Court of Appeals said that was not enough to give him standing.

The amendment passed by state lawmakers last year 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 new process, 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 plaintiffs argued that the change, which enabled Governor Reynolds to appoint a majority of the commission, politicized the judicial-selection process. That, they 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.

Cedar Rapids lawyer Bob 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 same issues were argued in the second suit brought by Duff.

The appeals court did not address the constitutional questions raised by the plaintiffs.

Rush, who was the lead plaintiff in the original suit and who represented Duff in the second, said both decisions would be appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

In addressing the standing question of lawyers and past and current nominating commission members, the court said both groups failed to make their case.

The plaintiffs’ group that included lawyers and commission members had argued that the nine members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission appointed by the governor could vote as a bloc and extinguish the votes of the other members.

But the court dismissed that argument, finding the possibility of a future injury is merely theoretical.

“The record before us is devoid of any evidence this has occurred, and we cannot say with any certainty that it will occur in the future,” Judge Michael Mullins wrote for the court. “The claimed injury is at this point too ‘conjectural’ or ‘hypothetical.’”

Nor do the legislator plaintiffs have standing, the court found.

“As the defendants point out, the injury alleged by the legislator-plaintiffs is not unique or personal to them but instead is true of all members of the Iowa legislature — each member was ultimately asked to vote” on the legislative changes to the judicial nominating process, the court said. “Thus, the injury alleged by the legislator-plaintiffs is an institutional injury.”

Two members of the five-judge panel dissented in part.

Senior Judge David Danilson, joined by Senior Judge Amanda Potterfield, agreed with the majority that all of the plaintiffs lacked standing, but Danilson argued that the standing issue should have been waived under an Iowa Supreme Court precedent that recognized an exception to standing if citizens “seek to resolve certain questions of great public importance and interest in our system of government.”

“I believe the issues raised by these plaintiffs are of great public importance and would apply the exception to standing,” Danilson wrote. “I would reverse the district court’s dismissal of their suit and remand for proceedings on the merits.”

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