Senate Democrats defeat four governor’s appointees to the judicial nominating commission

By: - May 24, 2022 7:38 pm

The Iowa Senate. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Democrats in the Iowa Senate on Tuesday defeated four appointees by Gov. Kim Reynolds to the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission.

Meanwhile, Republicans approved legislation aimed at giving the governor more control over the state’s judicial nominations.

A shouting match erupted on the Senate floor during debate of the commission nominations as lawmakers accused each other and the governor of partisan motives.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said Democrats opposed four nominees to the commission that nominates judges for state courts because the governor was in violation of state law. The confirmation votes for Gwen Ecklund, Kathleen Law, Jeremy Kidd and Derek Muller failed to reach the two-thirds majority, or 34 votes needed to pass. Republicans hold 32 seats in the Senate, but several senators were absent Tuesday.

“Mr. President, Iowa code reads that people who are appointed to the state judicial nominating commission, shall be chosen without reference to political affiliation. But today, eight out of the nine members of the state judicial nominating commission are registered Republicans,” he said, while the ninth left the GOP because it wasn’t conservative enough.

That wouldn’t be possible, he said, if commissioners were chosen without regard to party affiliation.

Republicans have revamped the nominating commission

Although the governor appoints judges to the district court, Iowa Court of Appeals and Iowa Supreme Court, she is limited to the finalists chosen by the nominating commission.

Republicans, who hold the majority in the House and Senate, have moved over the past couple of years to increase the governor’s influence over the judicial nominations process. In 2019, the Legislature gave her nine appointments to the 17-member panel. The other eight are chosen by Iowa’s lawyers.

Before 2019, the governor and the state’s lawyers each had eight picks and the commission was chaired by a senior justice on the Iowa Supreme Court. Republicans sent Reynolds a bill Tuesday that would allow the members of the commission to choose their chair. However, the bill did not remove judges from the panel, as Senate Republicans proposed.

House File 2558, the budget for the judicial branch for 2023, also eliminates the requirement that the governor pass through the chief judge’s budget recommendation to the Legislature in her budget recommendation.

The discussion over nominees became heated Tuesday when Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, accused Wahls and Democratic Sen. Nate Boulton of opposing the nominees because of their party affiliation.

“In essence, what they’re telling us is the only reason they’re opposed to (Ecklund) is because she’s a Republican. And the very code section that they’re quoting says you’re not supposed to take into account the political affiliation of nominees. But that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re voting against her solely because she’s a registered Republican,” Garrett said.

Sen. Brad Zaun, an Urbandale Republican, tried to persuade Democrats to reconsider based on the credentials of the nominees. He noted that the nominees can stay on the commission for 60 days, potentially allowing them to participate in choosing a replacement for Iowa Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel, who has announced plans to retire in July. Appel was appointed by Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.

“I just I’m very frustrated about this,” Zaun said. “And I will tell you this. I look forward to when the minority party does not have power in this decision. And I look forward to our side being in the supermajority because what’s being done with these great Iowans is disgusting.”

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine.