by Mary Stroka
Iowa senators advanced a bill Monday that would change the makeup and leadership of district judicial nominating commissions.
Iowa’s 14 judicial election subdistricts each has a nominating commission that screens applicants and selects two nominees for district court judicial vacancies. The governor chooses one of the two to appoint for a district court vacancy.
Currently, the judge of the longest service in the district is the chair of the nominating commission, according to Iowa state statute. If there are two longest-serving judges, the elder is the chair. The commissions have 11 members: five elected by lawyers; five nonlawyers appointed by the governor; and the chair. Each commissioner, apart from the chair, serves a six-year term.
Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, the vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, proposed a bill, SF 2014, to have the commissioners elect a chairperson among themselves who would serve two-year terms that would expire in April of even-numbered years, instead of having the chairperson’s selection be based on age.
The chairperson could be re-elected for up to three terms. He or she could step down from the position, retaining status of commissioner, by notifying the governor and other commissioners. The commissioners would elect a new chairperson to fill the remainder of the term.
The governor would be able to appoint six, instead of five, electors of each judicial election district’s commission. Half, not a simple majority, of the commissioners would be required to be the same gender.
The bill mirrors a bill, SF 638, that Gov. Kim Reynolds passed in 2019. That bill made changes for the State Judicial Nominating Commission. It increased the number of judges governors could appoint from eight to nine and made the same change to the selection of chairperson, among other changes.
While the current bill passed out of subcommittee Monday, several groups are lobbying against it, including the Iowa State Bar Association and the Iowa Judicial Branch.
Sen. Nate Boulton D-Des Moines, said Iowa legislators should wait to see how the latest set of judiciary changes affects Iowa’s judicial system.
“We certainly don’t want to see these changes taken on, stacking on top of each other, without a full appreciation of what they actually will result in,” he said. “We’ve had a pretty narrow sample size since we made major changes to the judicial nominating qualifications process. And, certainly, we don’t want to see instability in our courts, in a branch of government that should be one of the more stable branches of government.”
Americans for Prosperity is lobbying in support of the bill.
“The judicial branch isn’t meant to be a closed off system with no input from the people of Iowa and having a law degree shouldn’t entitle anyone to more of a voice in any part of their government,” AFP State Director Drew Klein told The Center Square in an emailed statement.
Klein said the reforms of the 2019 bill are working well at the state level.
“Greater continuity and transparency can bring greater confidence in every level of our judicial branch,” he said.
Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter said in a blog post criticizing the bill that the current process of selecting district judges is designed to avoid politics to encourage judges to be “fair and impartial.”
“In some states candidates for judgeships run for election and are forced to be politicians,” the post said. “In some states judges are appointed by the governor, subject to confirmation by the legislature, just like federal judges. As we have seen on the federal level, that kind of judicial selection causes politics to rear its ugly head.”
Giving the governor six appointments to each commission would leave five for lawyers’ selection, giving the governor the majority on the commission.
“The outcome would be that the governor would control indirectly who is nominated for a judgeship and directly control who is appointed from those partisan nominees,” the post said.
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Mary Stroka contributes to The Center Square.