Two years after voters served the Iowa Supreme Court with a shocking blow, the judicial selection process continues to be debated, as witnessed at a forum Saturday with Iowa Supreme Court Justice Thomas Waterman.
Waterman, of Pleasant Valley, was appointed to the state’s highest court in 2011 after voters ousted three justices in 2010. Their dismissals came on the heels of the court’s ruling that Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.
Speaking to nearly 70 people at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Waterman described the retention ouster as “an unprecedented shock” as no judge had ever been voted off the Iowa Supreme Court. Waterman and the two other judges appointed to fill the vacancies have since been retained by voters to full terms in 2012.
The first-time ouster, he said, “was a wake-up call that organized attacks on the judicial can happen and do work.”
But the situation also has led to some significant advancements in the court, Waterman said. During the new court’s tenure, the justices have cleared a backlog of cases they inherited, increased the court’s transparency and are working to educate the public to the court’s role. Examples of the new transparency, he said, include returning cameras to the courtroom, live Internet streaming and taking the court “on the road” by holding court sessions in six different cities across the state.
But the retention ouster also has created other problems, he told the crowd, which was made up mostly of pre-law and political science students and faculty. The “volatile environment” is leading to a shrinking pool of judge applicants.
“Part of that also is that judges have not had a raise in five years,” he said.
He added that the state’s budget situation poses an even “bigger threat” to the judicial system. Diminished hours at courthouses and reduced staff resources are impacting the court’s abilities, he said.
The discussion marked the 10th annual Folwell Lecture in Political Science and Pre-Law at St. Ambrose. The Folwell Chair Endowment was established in 2001 by Quad-City philanthropist Jane Folwell, who had a 30-year career as a congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
A panel of legal experts joined Waterman in discussing their views on judge selections. In Iowa, the process involves a State Judicial Nominating Commission – made up of eight lawyers, eight appointees and the highest-ranking justice who is not the chief.
The commission narrows the pool of candidates to two candidates for district court and three for appellate court. The candidates then are submitted to the governor, who must chose one, said Brenna Findley, Gov. Terry Branstad’s legal counsel.
“Retention is the power that belongs to the people,” she said. But, she stressed that voters need to become more educated about the court, which is one of the positive results of the 2010 retention vote.
Panel member Ryan Koopmans, a litigator with Nyemaster Goode law firm in Des Moines, criticized the process because the public’s involvement is “at the exact wrong end” of the process.
He believes elected officials, including the governor and the state Senate, should choose judges, and those judges should not stand for reelection. This model follows the federal process in which judges are appointed for life.
Judges should be appointed at a "political, elected level," he said.
Waterman, however, said the Iowa system “is the best of both worlds.” “It’s a merit selection on the front end (with the commission) and then an appointment by the governor. Then the check on that is the retention vote.”
Waterman, who practiced law 27 years at Lane & Waterman in Davenport, said he would not favor a system in which a judge runs for election, as judges do in Illinois. “I don’t want to run a campaign and raise money. I want to do my job,” he said.