The way Iowa selects judges has been a model for the nation for decades. It’s a merit based selection process that is fair, impartial, and non-partisan.
The system was put in place in 1962 when our Iowa Constitution was updated to require vacancies in Iowa courts be selected by the Governor from qualified lists of nominees provided by judicial nominating commissions. The commissions must maintain gender balance, but there is no requirement for partisan balance. The idea was to keep the selection of our judges based on qualifications and limit the influence of special interest groups and political parties.
Iowa Supreme Court Justices and Iowa Court of Appeals Justices are nominated by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. Made up of 17 members, the commission is composed of eight lawyers elected by fellow lawyers in the state, eight members appointed by the governor with Senate confirmation, and the most senior member of the Iowa Supreme Court that is not the Chief Justice. The commission sends three names to the Governor for consideration.
Judges for Iowa’s 14 District Courts are nominated by separate district nominating commissions. Comprised of 10 members, five are appointed by the governor and five are elected by local lawyers. Those commissions submit two names to the Governor for consideration.
Our current judicial selection system is ranked as one of the best in the country. The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform ranks the impartiality of Iowa judges 9th overall in the country and another non-partisan organization actually recommends other states adopt a system similar to Iowa’s for picking judges.
Despite Iowa’s model system, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to change the current system and inject politics into the system by letting politicians and campaign donors pick Iowa judges. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to take the bill up this week.
Naturally, Republicans didn’t talk about this on the campaign trail last fall nor have they given any credible reason to change our current non-partisan system. Since they already control the legislative and executive branches, the Governor and Republican lawmakers now just want to expand their control to the judicial branch by packing the courts with judges who will rubber stamp their partisan agenda.
It’s also worth noting that the Governor has been working overtime to politicize our system by appointing 70 Republicans, 4 No Parties, and 3 Democrats to the judicial nomination commission spots under her control.
The bill has been roundly criticized by Iowans across the board — and for good reason. In a poll out this week by the Des Moines Register, 59% of Iowans approve of the job the Iowa Supreme Court is doing and a majority of Iowans by a 21% margin don’t want to change the way we pick judges.
This is more than just a philosophical disagreement between two political parties. It’s a power grab that threatens the checks and balances of our system of government.
The judicial branch is designed to be a check on both the legislative and executive branches to make sure the laws passed comply with and uphold the Iowa Constitution. A judicial branch filled with judges hand-picked by politicians, special interests, and campaign donors would erode the trust our citizens have in our independent judiciary and our democracy.
We can all agree we need less partisanship and more cooperation in our government today. In today’s politically charged environment, it’s more important than ever to keep our courts fair, impartial, and non-partisan.