Iowa Officials Must Face Challenge to Judicial Nominating Process

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – An Iowa judge kept alive a lawsuit challenging 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)

Polk County District Judge Joseph Seidlin ruled Tuesday afternoon that Des Moines attorney Thomas Duff has standing to sue Republican Governor Kimberly Reynolds and other state officials over changes in the process for appointing members of the state commission that nominates judges for the Iowa Supreme Court and Iowa Court of Appeals.

The judge dismissed two other counts, including Duff’s request for a temporary injunction.

The bill passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature gave the governor the power to appoint nine of 17 members of the commission, a majority. Eight commission members are elected by Iowa lawyers.

Duff claims in the suit filed last month that giving the governor the power to appoint a majority of the commission politicizes the process, which violates a provision of the Iowa Constitution that established a nonpartisan merit-selection system in 1962.

The attorney 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.

Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller, defending the state, moved to dismiss Duff’s suit on grounds that he lacks standing to sue.

Seidlin disagreed Tuesday, saying Duff has a “special interest,” as opposed to a general interest, in the challenged action.

“Here, Duff alleges an actual injury, that as an applicant for the Iowa Court of Appeals, he was deprived of a full and fair consideration by a nominating commission made up of a Supreme Court justice, and an equal number of elected and governor-appointed members,” the judge wrote. “Such an injury would demonstrate his interest as one with a direct stake in the outcome of this litigation rather than a generalized interest that legislation comply with the state’s constitution.”

The judge also shot down the state’s argument that Duff cannot satisfy the second element of standing – that a plaintiff must be “injured in fact” – because he cannot prove that he would have succeeded in his bid for a judgeship were it not for the legislative changes in the makeup of the nominating commission.

“This argument misses the point,” Seidlin wrote. “Duff’s injury stems from the alleged unconstitutional passage of the [legislation] that changed the makeup of the nominating commission. But for this alleged unconstitutional act, Duff’s application would have been considered by a nominating commission made up of different members than the one that did consider it.”

The judge continued, “His argument is that he interviewed with the wrong commission. It doesn’t matter what votes he received or didn’t receive from that commission. His injury comes from the deprivation of his opportunity to interview with and be considered by the right commission.”

That, Seidlin said, is enough to show a sufficient specific personal stake in the controversy to justify resolution by the court.

Duff filed his suit after a different Polk County judge dismissed a separate complaint that raised the same issues because the plaintiffs lacked standing. That decision has been appealed and will be heard by the Iowa Court of Appeals next month.

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