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Judicial panel picks three nominees for Reynolds to choose from for Iowa Supreme Court

The next Iowa Supreme Court justice will be the fifth appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.
John Pemble
IPR file
The next Iowa Supreme Court justice will be the fifth appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

A list of three Iowa Supreme Court nominees has been sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The finalists were chosen after the State Judicial Nominating Commission held public interviews with five applicants for Iowa’s highest court. The commission was changed by a 2019 law to include nine members appointed by the governor and eight elected by Iowa lawyers.

The short list coming out of those interviews includes Judge David May from the Iowa Court of Appeals, Des Moines attorney William Miller, and Clayton County District Court Judge Alan Heavens.

With her next appointment, Reynolds will have appointed five out of the seven justices on the court, and all will have been named by a Republican governor.

A recurring question during Monday’s interviews was how to address perceived political bias in the courts after both the Iowa Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court delivered landmark decisions eliminating abortion rights protections in the last two weeks.

May responded that he counters that perception by basing his decisions on the letter of the law.

“To me the best way to avoid the perception that judges are making up the rules as they go along is, particularly when we talk about democratically produced texts like statutes, to carefully follow those texts and to not substitute our own viewpoints for those texts,” said May, who was appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals in 2019 after serving as a district court judge.

Miller, a partner with the Dorsey & Whitney law firm in Des Moines, said education and transparency is important for public trust in the courts.

“Continue to educate the public about the role of the courts and the role of our court,” said Miller, who once clerked for Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady. “To explain the role of the court and its role in the system.”

Judge Alan Heavens said the court should not ignore the fact that bias could play a role in the legal process. According to the Sentencing Project, Black Iowans are incarcerated at a rate nine times higher than white Iowans. Heavens said the Supreme Court has a role to play in improving the justice system.

“The stats don’t lie. I think it’s fair for African Americans to wonder, ‘Am I being treated fairly by the system?’” said Heavens, who was the Clayton County Attorney before he was appointed to the bench.

“There’s a lot of focus on the criminal history or the nature of the offense, but what about family circumstances? What about employment circumstances? What about age? If we overlook those things we may be sending some people to prison who really shouldn’t be there if you look at all the factors.”

Heavens also made a pitch for selecting a justice from a rural part of the state, pointing out that if the next justice is from the Des Moines area, a majority of the court would be from Polk County.

Reynolds has 30 days to make her selection.

The nominee chosen for the court will fill the vacancy made by retiring Justice Brent Appel, the last justice on the court who was appointed by a Democrat.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa