Judicial nominating commission members charge up to $250 each for public records

The Iowa Supreme Court meets in the Iowa Judicial Branch Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

The individuals who help decide who sits on Iowa’s Supreme Court want to be paid as much as $250 each to provide public access to information related to their work.

The State Judicial Nominating Commission is one of the more powerful volunteer committees in the state. It decides who will be the finalists for a seat on the Iowa Supreme Court.

In 2020, the commission was especially active as it worked to interview and finalize nominees for two vacant seats. As part of the interview process, the public was allowed to send in comments for the commissioners to review.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch recently requested access to the comments sent to each commissioner. In response, the commissioners requested a range of payments, from $0 to $250.

In total, the commissioners requested $1,621.50 for access to the records.

The request came at a time when groups across the state closely watched the nomination process after a new law passed in 2019 that gave Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds more control over who is on the nominating commission.

While each commissioner gave his or her own costs for the records, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office offered to disclose the comments it received at no cost.

While the office also provided, at no charge, the public comments sent to the State Judicial Nominating Commission’s inbox, the emails sent to individual commissioners still carried a price tag for public access.

Kathy Pearson of Cedar Rapids, and Steve Berger of Wellman, charged the highest amounts, each stating that it took them five hours to compile the requested records. They asked to be paid $50 an hour for their time, for a total of $250 each.

Pearson specified the five hours were dedicated to finding the relevant emails. However, she said, her server crashed and she was unable to recover the documents. Berger did not give a reason for his cost estimate. Both failed to respond to an interview request.

Other commissioners charged $40 to $50 an hour for one to four hours of work. Costs included locating, sorting, sending and attaching emails, as well as scanning documents and removing staples.

Kathleen Law, secretary of the commission, said it took her two hours to go through emails related to the vacancies, review the emails and physical letters and determine which ones were subject to disclosure as public records.

Next, Law said she had to upload all of the emails and letters to send to the Attorney General’s Office for review. These tasks took two hours of work for $50 an hour, which was the recommended rate by the Attorney General’s Office, Law said. Because of the amount of time it took to review and upload the documents, Law said $50 an hour is a “reasonable rate,” to request.

On the other end of the spectrum, five commissioners chose not to charge for access to the public records, including Dan Huitink, Christine Conover, Dorothy O’Brien, Lance Horbach and Steve Sukup.

Horbach, who is no longer on the commission, said he chose not to charge for the records because he considered assembling them a part of his volunteer duties for the commission.

Huitink said he didn’t charge for the records because it was easy to forward and send them to the Attorney General’s Office for review. He said he had organized his messages to review,  but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if the request was “burdensome” for commissioners who didn’t do the same.

There was no difference between the governor’s appointments and elected lawyers when it came to charges.

A review of the comments disclosed by the attorney general showed mostly letters of recommendation and a few emails citing political concerns. Commissioners were copied on the majority of the messages.

While the vast majority of the comments about the finalists were complimentary, some of them were not.

One letter from a local attorney expressed concerns over the temperament and qualifications of a Supreme Court candidate who ultimately was not nominated. Another email came from a journalist who was worried about a candidate upholding the U.S. Constitution and specifically, the First Amendment.

Other emails expressed concerns over the alleged political leanings of Supreme Court candidates, including Matthew McDermott, who was ultimately appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Public records are a way of allowing everyday Iowans to monitor their government and ensure accountability. From marriage certificates to a police officer’s dashcam footage, records are used to deter corruption, identify community trends and explain how taxpayer dollars are being used.

In Iowa, however, state law allows public officials to charge a “reasonable fee” for the work required to provide those records — enabling record holders to determine how much to charge.

That can create a barrier for Iowans who are seeking records. For example, a Quad-City television station requested Muscatine’s cost for going through a lengthy courtroom battle to remove the mayor in 2017.

After paying $1,260, the station received a stack of redacted paperwork.

For everyday Iowans, even paying $1,260 would be a barrier to receiving public records, said Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transparency from government agencies.

Evans said the high costs from some commissioners goes against the intention of Iowa’s public records law.

He said it is “inconceivable” that it would take five hours for a commissioner to go through an inbox and assemble the relevant records.

“The ability of citizens to monitor their government is fundamental to government in Iowa,” Evans said. “It goes against the grain of Iowa’s tradition of openness for officials to try to reign hundreds of dollars from ordinary citizens for availing themselves of a law that’s meant to encourage openness and transparency.

Commissioner’s requested costs:

Elected lawyers:

Henry Bevel: $75

Christine L. Conover, $0

Leon Spies: $50

Dorothy O’Brien: $0

Jeff Goodman: $162.50

Kristina Stanger: $100

Janece M. Valentine: $150

John Gray: $50

Appointed members:

Kathy Pearson: $250

Lance Horbach: $0

Steve Berger: $250

Helen Sinclair: $150

John Bloom: $204

Kathleen Law: $100

Steve Sukup: $0

Patricia “Trish” Roberts: $80

Dan Huitink: $0