Judicial commission fights subpoena from Iowa House committee

By: - March 2, 2022 4:36 pm

(Photo by Getty Images)

A state commission is going to court to block a legislative subpoena for information related to last year’s controversial selection of finalists to fill a judicial vacancy.

In a petition filed this week in Polk County District Court, the District 2B Judicial Nominating Commission argues that the Legislature has no authority to act in the matter and that its actions violate the state’s separation of powers principles by interfering with the judicial nominating process.

The petition seeks to quash a subpoena from the Iowa House Judiciary Committee’s investigation into the 2B Judicial Nominating Commission. That committee is looking into allegations that the former head of the commission acted improperly in the selection process to fill a vacancy in Judicial District 2B, which encompasses 13 counties in north-central Iowa.

Gov. Kim Reynolds rejected the two names that were initially put forward by the commission to fill the vacancy and instructed the panel to renew the selection process. In a letter to the commissioners, Reynolds cited allegations that District Judge Kurt Stoebe, who chaired the commission, had acted improperly.

“Several commissioners voiced frustration with favoritism shown in the interview process toward one applicant and unprofessional comments made by Judge Stoebe about other disfavored applicants,” Reynolds wrote. She stated that Stoebe had allegedly referred to one applicant as “clueless,” said another “doesn’t have the heart to sit on the bench,” and falsely informed commissioners that another applicant had withdrawn from consideration.

Stoebe subsequently stepped down as the commission chairman and resigned as assistant chief judge of the district. He continues to serve as a district judge.

On Feb. 25, the Iowa House’s Standing Committee on Judiciary Investigation into the 2B Judicial Nominating Commission emailed subpoenas to the members of the district’s Judicial Nominating Commission, seeking documents tied to the October commission meeting to fill the vacancy.

The subpoena seeks access all minutes taken during the October meeting, any emails sent or received by a commissioner that pertain to Stoebe’s conduct during the meeting and any notes a commissioner took during the process.

The committee is led by Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison who serves as chairperson of the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Pat Grassley, the speaker of the Iowa House.

The committee’s actions stem from a resolution introduced by Holt and approved by the Iowa House, which makes failure to comply with a subpoena punishable by fines and jail time. Holt has stated publicly the investigation is intended to procure information, whether “it exonerates Judge Stoebe or confirms the allegations.”

In its petition, the commission is challenging the Iowa House of Representatives’ ability to require commissioners to disclose information pertaining to deliberations, and cites the commission’s own Uniform Rules of Procedure, authorized by the Legislature, requiring that such information remain confidential.

The rules cited by the commission state that “deliberations are confidential” and that “commissioners shall maintain their deliberations as confidential and vote for the most qualified applicants by secret ballot.”

The commission also questions the Legislature’s authority to act in this matter, citing a provision of the Iowa Constitution that says the “powers of the government of Iowa shall be divided into three separate departments — the legislative, the executive, and the judicial: and no person charged with the exercise of powers properly belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any function appertaining to either of the others, except in cases hereinafter expressly directed or permitted.”

The commission members say that while the state constitution gives the Iowa House the power to impeach judges, it gives the Iowa Supreme Court the power to “discipline or remove” judges for good cause.

The commission is asking the court to quash the House committee’s subpoena and permanently enjoin and restrain the Iowa House from taking any further action regarding the subpoenas.

The petition was filed by commissioners Aaron W. Ahrendsen of Carroll, Meredith C. Mahoney Nerem of Boone, and Timothy L. Gartin of Ames.

The House committee has yet to file a response and Holt did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.