DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad’s picks for people who choose Supreme Court judges include a former gubernatorial candidate, a Presbyterian Church elder who runs a consulting business and a hospital foundation director.
All are self-identified Republicans who, among them, have given thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns and causes.
Once confirmed by the Senate, the eight appointees will join eight attorneys elected by the Iowa State Bar to form the State Judicial Nominating Commission and play a key role in deciding who sits on the state’s appellate courts.
Who gets a commission spot is typically only of interest to those who run in legal circles, but as the general elections of 2010 and 2012 have shown, the line between judge and politician is blurring.
“It’s typical of Governor Branstad’s appointments,” said Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa. “He typically gives these jobs to political supporters. It calls into question whether he’s picking the best person for the job, because his appointees have always had this political bent to them.”
State election records show that seven of the eight appointees have made contributions in their name to Republican candidates and Republican-leaning political action committees.
The largest contributor by far is Steve Sukup of Clear Lake. He’s the chief financial officer of his family’s grain bin manufacturing company. He served in the Iowa Legislature and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 2002.
Since 2003, he’s given more than $53,000 to political campaigns, including $1,250 to Branstad’s 2010 campaign and more than $10,000 to Republican House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake since November 2011.
The governor’s office provided copies of the applications of all the appointees to the Quad-City Times in response to an open records request. Most of the fields in Sukup’s application were blank when his application was received by Times.
Department of Administrative Services deputy director Caleb Hunter said “an error occurred in retrieving the information from the database.” Sukup resubmitted a completed application, including a personal statement, after the issue was brought to his attention.
Still, in cases such as Sukup’s, an application is likely just pro forma. He’s well-known in Iowa business and political circles and said he previously expressed interest in such an appointment.
Political contributions, he said, “shouldn’t have any weight on whether you’re appointed. It should be about being qualified, having community involvement and understanding our government.”
Jerry Welter, a former state representative and city council member from Monticello, said he applied for a commission spot because he could bring “a practical touch and a rural perspective” to the commission.
“I don’t have an agenda, this wasn’t a lifelong goal,” he said when reached by phone last week. “I think it’s an honor, and it’s going to take some work, but I look forward to it.”
Like Sukup, Welter is a Republican and a contributor to Branstad’s campaign committee with contributions totaling $315 since August 2010.
Sinovic said he would like to see a system in which candidates for commissions have to make their party affiliation and their political contributions public when they apply for any government board or commission.
“The real question is not whether they should be able to make a political contribution. Of course, they should,” he said. “The question is why he is putting these people in positions of power. Disclose their donations. People have a right to know.”
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How to choose
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor’s critics are trying to make hay out of nothing.
“The governor selected eight outstanding citizens of Iowa who will work hard to select fair, impartial judges. Iowa law specifically requires that these appointments be made without regard to party affiliation,” he said. “The question is whether you believe the governor’s office should be held to a different standard than the Bar and their picks for the commission. We do not believe we should.”
Picking by party is perfectly legal. The statute governing commission appointments says only that the governor must pick two people from each congressional district. Commissioners elected by the State Bar have to strike gender balance.
Scott Peters, a political science professor from the University of Northern Iowa, said the idea behind merit selections is to keep politics out of the mix when selecting judges.
“Highly partisan selections could have an effect” on the appearance of impartiality, Peters said, adding that there’s no evidence that party affiliation of nominating commissioners means they won’t pick the most qualified candidate when it comes time to nominate.
But, he said, logic seems to point in a different direction.
“I would say it’s hard to keep one’s own personal ideology out of the assessment of what makes a good judge,” he said.