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Senate bill would let Iowa governor pick majority of district judicial nominating commissioners

senators julian garrett and jason schultz hold a subcommittee hearing in the iowa capitol
Katarina Sostaric
Republican State Senators Julian Garrett and Jason Schultz, center, advanced a bill Monday to change the makeup of district judicial nominating comissions.

A bill that would allow the governor to appointa majority of the members on regional judicial selection commissions advanced in the Iowa Senate Monday.

The state’s 14 district judicial nominating commissions interview applicants for district judge positions and send two nominees to the governor, who appoints the new judge.

The commissions are made up of 11 people—five members elected by lawyers, five non-lawyer members appointed by the governor, and the most senior district court judge who serves as the chair. The bill would remove the judge from the commission and replace them with a sixth person selected by the governor.

This would mirrora law passed by Republicans in 2019 that changed the makeup of the state judicial nominating commission, which selects nominees for the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, said he supports bringing the district commissions in line with the changes he and other lawmakers previously made to the state commission.

“I appreciate the consistency,” Schultz said.

But several people at a Statehouse meeting about the bill Monday referenced a case from last year in which Gov. Kim Reynolds rejected district judge nomineesfrom a north-central Iowa district because the chief judge there was accused of trying to rig the process.

“We believe it is best to have judges involved in the process of selecting judges,” said Caitlin Jarzen with the Iowa Judicial Branch. “We understand that there has been an issue with this process at the district level. However, that issue was addressed and resolved, and we don’t believe that the entire system needs to be changed because of it.”

The Iowa Judicial Branch and Supreme Court are opposed to this bill.

Bill sponsor Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said that was an extreme case, but he thinks there’s a bigger issue.

“I’ve heard similar comments from others, along the lines of, attorneys being really reluctant to say anything contradictory to the judge,” Garrett said. “And that’s probably not—I don’t want me to say that that’s universally the case—but I think it’s fair to say, in some cases, that’s true. Some of the non-attorneys have also been a little concerned about what they view as the undue influence of the judge.”

The Democrat on the panel, Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, did not vote to advance the bill.

Lobbyist Kellie Paschke said the group Justice Not Politics is opposed to the bill.

“I would like to speak to the sort of the shifting of the balance from five [governor’s] appointees to six,” Paschke said. “From our perspective, all that does is drive more politics into our judiciary, which we have all claimed we want to avoid.”

The Family Leader and Americans Prosperity are registered in support of the changes.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter