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Court Of Appeals Hears Arguments Over Judicial Nominations

John Pemble
IPR file photo

A group of attorneys and Democratic lawmakers are hoping to revive a lawsuit challenging how Iowa Supreme Court justices are chosen. A law passed in the final moments of the legislative session gave the governor more influence over the process.

The law removed the Supreme Court’s senior justice from the Judicial Nominating Commission and allows Governor Kim Reynolds to appoint nine of the panel’s 17 members. That’s a change from the state constitution, which states the governor and Iowa lawyers should choose an equal number of commission members.

Attorney Bob Rush, who represents the Democrats challenging the law, told the Iowa Court of Appeals Wednesday that the constitution does allow for limited changes by the legislature. “It does not invite the legislature to override a constitutional requirement for judicial selection,” Rush said.

Rush said giving the governor an additional appointee disenfranchises the attorneys who elect the remaining commission members. “The state has argued, ‘Well, gee whiz, they still have a vote. What can the problem be?’ Well, the problem is dilution of the weight of that vote,” Rush said.

The lawsuit was initially dismissed by a Polk County judge who ruled, in part, that the Democratic legislators were not sufficiently harmed by the law to challenge it. Rush disagrees, and is asking the Court of Appeals to overrule that decision because judicial selection is of “great public importance.”

Assistant Attorney General David Ranscht, representing Governor Reynolds, argued the district court made the right decision. He said changing the balance of the nominating commission does not rise to that level.

“Just because a lawyer raises an issue and it involves the court system, the judicial system, doesn’t make it rise to the level of great public importance,” Ranscht said.

Ranscht said the argument against the law boils down to disagreeing with a policy change, and that’s not something that should be taken up in court. “We don’t want to transfer every legislative debate to be continued in the courtroom,” Ranscht said.

Attorney Thomas Duff is challenging the law in a separate lawsuit where he argues he was harmed by the law because the commission, in its new form, did not nominate him to serve on the Court of Appeals. A district court judge ruled that case could go forward, but the state is appealing the decision.