Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds now controls a majority of the 17-member panel that nominates potential Iowa Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges. She signed controversial judicial selection changes into law Wednesday.
The new law immediately removes the senior justice from the panel that selects names to send to the governor for a final decision. The senior justice will be replaced with an appointment by the governor.
The new makeup of the commission is nine appointments by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation, and eight attorneys elected by other attorneys.
Reynolds said in a statement this change gives all Iowans more say in the process for selecting judges.
“For the first time, a majority of the state nominating commission will be representing the people of Iowa instead of the Bar and the Bench,” Reynolds said, referring to lawyers and judges.
Iowa’s system for selecting judges was established in 1962 constitutional amendment.
During the legislative session, Democrats questioned why Republicans were seeking to change a nationally respected, merit-based system that was originally supported by both parties and approved by a majority of Iowa voters.
House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said in late April that 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.”
Other Democrats called it a power grab and said it will politicize the court system.
Reynolds signaled she was open to changing Iowa’s judicial selection process as early as December 2018. Some conservatives were calling for change after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled the state constitution protects abortion as a fundamental right.
The discussion of these changes at the Iowa Capitol was happening in the context of some Republican lawmakers and conservative groups condemning what they call “activist judges” on the Iowa Supreme Court. Reynolds signed the law with some Republican lawmakers and conservative leaders in her office.
The new law also shortens the term of the chief justice from eight years to two years, and it lowers the signature threshold for attorneys to get on the ballot to be elected to the nominating commission.