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Senate Democrats reject the governor's nominees for judicial nominating commission

John Pemble / IPR
Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls said the governor is violating the law by considering political affiliation in judicial nominating appointments.

Senate Democrats voted Tuesday to reject Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ four nominees for the panel that helps select Iowa Supreme Court justices.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, pointed toan Iowa law that says State Judicial Nominating Commission members shall be chosen “without reference to political affiliation.” He said eight of the nine current commissioners appointed by Reynolds are Republicans.

“From our perspective, the governor is in clear violation of the law and has been stacking this with her own Republican political appointments,” Wahls said.

Wahls said he doesn’t know the party affiliation of judicial nominating commissioners appointed by previous governors.

“I nominate highly qualified commissioners who share my judicial philosophy and want judges who will stand for the rule of law,” Reynolds said in a statement. “It is shameful that Senate Democrats chose to play political games on such an important issue.”

The four people rejected were Kathleen Law, the current chair of the commission; Gwen Ecklund, a Republican activist; Derek Muller, a University of Iowa law professor who was also rejected last year; and Jeremy Kidd, a Drake University associate law professor.

A two-thirds vote is required in the Senate to confirm the governor’s appointments. Democrats hold enough seats to block confirmations.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he’s frustrated.

“What’s being done with these great Iowans is disgusting,” Zaun said.

Muller wrote on Twitter he was “disappointed and perplexed”that Democrats blocked his nomination for the second year in a row.

Wahls said Senate Democrats rejected Muller in 2021 because of an Iowa law that says nominees can’t hold “an office of profit.” Wahls said Muller being a University of Iowa employee fit that definition. But Muller said judicial precedent does not consider public employment to be a public “office.”

The four appointees can still serve on the commission for 60 days and help select a replacement for Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel, who is retiring on July 13.

Appel is the last justice on the Court who was appointed by a Democratic governor.

House GOP opposes changes to district judicial nominating commissions

In 2019, Republicans passed a law giving the governor more influence over the statewide nominating commission that helps select Iowa Supreme Court justices and judges on the Iowa Court of Appeals.

They removed the senior justice and gave the governor a ninth appointment to the commission, giving her the ability to appoint the majority of the commissioners. The 17-member group interviews applicants for vacancies and recommends a few names to the governor, who then appoints the judge or justice.

On Tuesday, House Republicans rejected another attempt by Senate Republicans to make a similar change to the regional commissions that help select district court judges. The Senate GOP attached the provision to the judicial branch budget bill, but the House GOP removed it.

“Basically, somebody’s got straw caught in their throat and wants to get rid of the judges off the nominating commissions,” said Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake.

He said having a judge on each commission ensures there is someone with expertise who has seen how the applicants for judgeships perform in court. Senate Republicans had argued judges have too much influenceon the commissions.

Under the bill sent to the governor’s desk, the senior judge in each district will no longer automatically serve as the chair of each commission. Members would instead elect a chair, and they can elect the senior judge if they choose.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter