With subpoena for judicial records blocked, legislators consider mandatory disclosure

By: - March 10, 2022 2:10 pm

Melting snow on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Katie Akin / Iowa Capital Dispatch)

After being told that under Iowa law, state legislators can’t subpoena information from a judicial nominating panel, the Iowa House is now trying to rewrite the law on access.

House File 2485, which passed the House this week, would potentially give state lawmakers new insight into the process used to investigate and discipline Iowa judges.

Currently, most of the records of the state’s seven-member Commission on Judicial Qualifications — the body that investigates allegations of misconduct by judges and magistrates — are considered confidential. If House File 2485 were to become law, and if a standing committee of the Legislature was investigating charges brought before the commission, the standing committee would be guaranteed access to confidential information held by the commission.

Lawmakers’ access to such information has been an issue recently due to the District 2B Judicial Nominating Commission’s efforts to quash a subpoena from the Iowa House Judiciary Committee  seeking information on the commission’s work.

Last fall, Gov. Kim Reynolds rejected the two names that were initially put forward by the commission to fill a vacancy in Judicial District 2B, which encompasses 13 counties in north-central Iowa. 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another “doesn’t have the heart to sit on the bench,” and falsely informed commissioners that another applicant had withdrawn from consideration.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.

The House committee, led by Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison, issued a subpoena in February directed to the commission. It sought access to 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 commission objected and took the matter to court, arguing 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.

Before a judge could rule on that question, House Speaker Pat Grassley announced the committee was withdrawing the subpoena in light of the court system’s own investigation of the matter. “There’s going to be an investigation on the court side of things, and that’s really all along what our priority has been,” Grassley said at the time.

The House this week passed House File 2485 to give lawmakers access to the court system’s investigative materials. Holt said Wednesday that lawmakers will “rarely” take advantage of that access but added that “I believe this power is essential for the Legislature to be able to exercise its oversight authority of the judicial branch as it relates to the power of impeachment for malfeasance and misdemeanor.”

Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, spoke out against the bill and said that if the legislative branch requires the commission to turn over investigative material, “it might have a problematic effect on people’s willingness to be open” and speak freely to the commission.

“Presumably, those (records) would be open records that would be available to the press or anybody,” she said. “So I do think it might have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to be open in the information that they do provide to the Judicial Qualifications Commission.”

The bill passed on a 57-39 vote. It needs approval of a Senate committee by the end of next week to remain viable for debate.

Democrats call on GOP to cancel lawyer’s contract

Earlier this week, House Democrats said Republican lawmakers should cancel the contract for the lawyer who has been hired to represent the House committee in its investigation into the Stoebe matter. The attorney, Alan Ostergren, represented the Republican Party in an election-related lawsuit two years ago. He is also the lawyer for, and possibly the sole staff member of, the self-described “conservative public-interest law firm” known as the Kirkwood Institute.

Holt has described Ostergren as the only Iowa lawyer who has the “intestinal fortitude” to take on the court system.

In recent months, Ostergren and the Kirkwood Institute have filed a lawsuit against the state over licensing board regulations and against Auditor of State Rob Sand, a Democrat, over alleged Open Records Law violations.

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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.

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