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Lawsuit Attempts To Enforce Balance On Judicial Nominations Panel

John Pemble/IPR file photo
Iowa Public Radio
The Iowa Supreme Court has been under fire from conservative groups in the state following decisions on gay marriage and abortion.

A group of Iowa House Democrats is waiting to hear what comes next in a lawsuit aimed at rolling back changes to the process for choosing Iowa Supreme Court justices. The lawmakers are challenging new rules passed on the last day of the legislative session giving the governor more influence over the membership of the judicial nominating commission.

The panel, which provides the governor with a list of nominees for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, has traditionally included eight members chosen by lawyers and eight more appointed by the governor. It also includes the court’s senior justice as the commission’s chair.

After the changes were made, the senior justice was removed, and Republican Governor Kim Reynolds will be allowed to appoint a ninth person to the panel. 

“What has occurred here is to change the balance,” said Bob Rush, the attorney for the Democratic lawmakers in the case. “Clearly the political appointee gives the governor’s office the majority control in the commission. That’s not balance. That’s a majority.”

The House members want the court to block the commission from following the new rules while the suit continues. Rush argued at a hearing Monday that the rules were passed unfairly because they were added as a late-night amendment to an unrelated spending bill. He said the court should impose the balanced setup laid out in a state constitutional amendment adopted in 1962.

An attorney for the state asked the Polk County District Court judge to dismiss the case. Assistant Attorney General David Ranscht argued that the constitution leaves room for the legislature to make changes.

“The preference for balance is a policy matter,” Ranscht said. “But there is no legal requirement for an 8-8 configuration between elected and appointed members on the commission.”

Ranscht added that there will be more Republican appointees on the panel because Republicans have won  recent gubernatorial elections, but “that’s not a stack the deck situation at all.”

The nominating commission recommends three names for the governor to choose from when appointing a new Supreme Court justice and two names for positions on the Court of Appeals.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa