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Top Republican Lawmakers Discuss Changing Iowa's System For Choosing Justices

legislative leadership
John Pemble/IPR
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake; Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny; Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines; and House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, speak with reporters Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.

Iowa’s top Republican lawmakers said Thursday they will likely consider changes to the state’s merit-based system for choosing Supreme Court justices during the legislative session that starts Monday.

At a forum with reporters, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, accused Iowa Supreme Court justices of “judicial activism” over the past two decades. He said “the general populace” should have more say in how justices are picked.

“It’s just a matter of the accumulation of dozens and dozens of activist rulings from the Court, and trying to curb some of that,” Whitver said.

Politically conservative Iowans have been unhappy with some Iowa Supreme Court rulings, including one from 2018 that found a fundamental right to abortion in the state constitution.

A major overhaul of Iowa’s system for choosing justices would require a constitutional amendment. Whitver said Senate Republicans are trying to avoid that lengthy process by focusing on changes to the state judicial nominating commission.

The commission is made up of eight members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate, eight lawyers chosen by other lawyers, and the senior justice on the Iowa Supreme Court. They interview applicants, send the names of three finalists to the governor, and then the governor appoints a justice.

“Eight are voted on by attorneys, and you must be an attorney, and there’s no governor or legislature oversight on that,” Whitver said.

Whitver said having fewer attorneys and more of the “general populace” on the commission might make it “more fair.” That move could give elected officials more power over who serves on the commission that selects judicial nominees.

Democratic House Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said changing the system would be a slippery slope.

“The worst thing we can do is politicize our judiciary,” Prichard said. “And what problem are we trying to fix? I think accusing our merit-based judiciary of activism is unfounded.”

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds agreed lawmakers should discuss changing the nominating commission.

“Some would say that maybe the process right now is political,” Reynolds said. “So I think it makes sense to take a look at it.”

Reynolds did not specify what issues she sees in the current system.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter