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Republicans Approve Judicial Selection Changes In Final Moments Of Iowa Legislative Session

steven holt
John Pemble / IPR
Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, was a lead supporter of changes to the judicial nominating system.

Republicans at the Iowa Capitol approved a plan Saturday, the final day of the legislative session, to give the governor more power in the process of selecting Iowa Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges.

It’s a scaled-back version of a bill that was considered earlier this year. Republicans said the change would give the people of Iowa more say in the selection of the state’s appellate judges. But Democrats said the move is a power grab that will politicize the courts.

A 17-member nominating commission interviews applicant and sends three names to the governor, and she appoints the justice or judge. This plan removes the senior justice from the commission and replaces that seat with a ninth appointment by the governor. The new makeup of the commission will be nine appointments by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation, and eight attorneys elected by other attorneys.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said it’s appropriate to give the governor more say.

“The governor is elected by hundreds of thousands of citizens in Iowa,” Holt said. “Providing one additional appointment for the governor provides a bit of extra voice to the people through their elected governor.”

Holt added this “does not politicize the system in any way” because that power could shift to a Democratic governor in the future.

But Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said it’s meant to ensure the governor’s political appointees have control over the judicial nominating process.

“This is, in my opinion, an opportunistic power grab that does not belong in a budget bill,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe added the system that was put into place in a bipartisan manner through a constitutional amendment more than 40 years ago works well. And she said Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who supports changes to the judicial nominating system, has appointed two justices under the current system who share her judicial philosophy.

The earlier version of this proposal, passed by the Senate, was much more expansive. It would’ve removed the attorney elections and replaced them with statehouse leaders of both parties selecting commission members. It also would’ve removed the Senate confirmation requirement from the governor’s appointees.

“It may be a little less stark than earlier versions, but that doesn’t make it right,” said Rep. Andy McKean of Anamosa, who left the Republican Party and joined the Democrats earlier this week. “The bottom line is the same. It injects politics where it has no place: in our courts.”

McKean called the proposal “the latest attempt to corral 51 votes for a very questionable piece of legislation.” He said the people of Iowa did not ask for this, and Republicans did not mention it while campaigning in 2018.

In official statements, many Republican lawmakers and Reynolds said the move was meant to give the people of Iowa more say in the process. But that was happening in the context of some Republican lawmakers and conservative groups condemning what they call “activist judges” on the Iowa Supreme Court, who have drawn criticism for upholding same-sex marriage and abortion rights in the Iowa Constitution.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said this messes with the constitutional separation of powers by giving the governor more power. 

“That’s the system we have of checks and balances,” Prichard said. “This would be an erosion of that independence that the judiciary needs to protect individual rights and liberties.”

The plan also shortens the term of the chief justice to two years, and lowers the signature thresholds for attorneys to petition to serve on the nominating commission. Republicans say that will give rural lawyers a better chance of getting elected to the commission

Holt rejected the notion that this is a power grab and called it “simply a response to logic and common sense.”

Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, was the only Republican to vote against the plan.

The proposal now goes to the governor for her approval.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter