DES MOINES — Giving legislators more influence on the selection of district court judges and state Supreme Court justices would provide more accountability for Iowans, according to Republican sponsors of changes to the merit-based judicial nominating process.
The change would be a “great improvement” over a process that relies heavily on attorneys who are not accountable to the public serving on judicial nominating commissions, House Judiciary Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said Monday.
Currently, the governor appoints half the members and attorneys fill the other half of the slots on the commissions that nominate district court judges and Supreme Court justices. Attorneys, according to House Republicans, “hold significant power over the selection process ... without any accountability to the majority of Iowans.”
Republicans are proposing a nominating process modeled on the merit-based system used in Connecticut since 1986. House Study Bill 110 calls for the governor and majority and minority legislators to appoint members of judicial nominating commissions. Eight members would be appointed by the governor, and the minority and majority leaders of the House and Senate each would appoint two members. At least half of the appointees would be licensed attorneys, and the selections would be made without reference to political party affiliation and must be gender balanced. The governor would have to include one appointee from each of the four congressional districts. Commissioners would serve one six-year term.
Holt said a subcommittee hearing on HSB 110 is planned Wednesday, and the full committee could take up the bill as early as next week.
Gov. Kim Reynolds supports the plan, but legislative Democrats and interest groups registered their opposition.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said there’s no reason to change a process “that is respected throughout the country and is working well.”
“The plan by legislative Republicans to politicize Iowa’s court system is bad news for Iowans,” Petersen said, referring to a Judicial Branch statement that said merit selection is designed to emphasize the professional qualifications of applicants for judicial appointment and minimize partisan politics.
“That’s apparently not good enough for Republican politicians,” Petersen said.
The Iowa selection process is a “model example for how we can avoid the partisanship battles that are so prevalent in Washington, D.C.,” said Connie Ryan, chairwoman of Justice Not Politics, a nonpartisan coalition that aims to protect Iowa’s courts and system of merit selection and retention.
“Why would we want to insert that kind of politics in Iowa’s courts?” she asked.
Holt called the suggestion that Republicans are trying to politicize the judicial selection process “ridiculous.” HSB 110 addresses the makeup of the nominating commissions, not merit-based selection, he said.
“The majority party and the minority party would be placing folks on this commission,” he said. “We’re trying to create a process where the people who are elected and accountable to the people have that say as opposed to a group of lawyers putting other lawyers on these commissions with no oversight whatsoever.”
Currently, according to Justice Not Politics, the percentage of Republicans on nominating commissions is about twice their percentage among registered voters. About 32 percent of voters are Republicans while 62 percent of nominating commission members are affiliated with the party, according to information from the Secretary of State’s Office and state voter file.
So the changes Republicans are proposing would lessen the impact of politics because both the majority and minority parties would appoint members, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said.
“There still is a merit-based system that at least half of the members would be members of the bar so we would have the same kind of expertise at the table,” Upmeyer said, adding, “We’ll have a big discussion about this.”
Under the present system, Ryan said, the nominating commissions “consistently finds fair-minded, quality nominees.”
“I’m not necessarily saying the commission as currently set up makes bad decisions,” Holt said. “I’m saying there needs to be more accountability for the people in the process.”
Another change in HSB 110 would be that the governor would select the chair of the State Judicial Nominating Commission. Now the chief justice of the state Supreme Court fills that role. Also, the Supreme Court would elect the chief justice every two years. Now the chief is elected by the justices and serves until his or her term ends.