Bill advances giving more power to governor in district judge nominations

By: - February 7, 2023 4:37 pm

Lawmakers advanced legislation that would allow the governor to appoint a majority of the members to district court judicial nominating commissions. (Photo illustration via Canva)

The governor would get to choose the majority of members of a panel that helps nominate district judges under legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

District judicial nominating commissions vet applicants for vacant judge positions in Iowa’s 14 judicial districts. The commissions forward two candidates for the governor, who makes a final decision.

Under current law, the governor appoints five members to the panel of 11. Five of the remaining members are appointed by lawyers, and the most senior judge in the district serves as the final member and chairperson of the committee.

The bill, Senate File 171, would remove the senior judge as a commissioner and have the members elect among themselves who will serve as chair.

Democrats said this change would politicize the judicial selection process.

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said the proposed change is “a surefire way to insert more politics into judicial selection.”

An experienced judge can assess how applicants would manage a courtroom, he said, and removing that voice on the nominating commission could impact the administration of justice in Iowa.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, responded that “a lot of us think politics has been involved all along.”

“People have opinions, whether they’re judges or attorneys or laypeople or whatever. Everybody has their opinions,” Garrett said. “And like I said … we’ve seen a lot of politics over the years under the old system.”

Garrett said the legislation reflects a 2019 change made to the statewide judicial nominating commission, which nominates applicants for Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals vacancies. The law took away the automatic appointment of a Iowa Supreme Court justice as chair and allowed the governor to appoint nine members, a majority, of the 17-member commission.

Last year, Senate Democrats defeated four of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ appointees to the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission, saying the governor violated state law because all but one of her picks were registered Republicans. This year, Democrats do not have enough votes to scuttle a governor’s nominee.

Garrett introduced the same district commission change in 2022. While that measure did not pass, Republicans passed measures in a judicial appropriations bill that would have removed the judges from their position as chair but kept them as a member of the panel. Reynolds vetoed that section, saying the change would not do enough to address the “undue influence” judges have on nominating commissions. She said she believed other commissioners would continue to appoint judges as chairs to avoid uncomfortable dynamics.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said senior judges provide important institutional knowledge about the courts in their district. Each district faces different problems and different caseloads, and a senior judge can provide the context of their district’s specific needs.

“I would think that you would want to have the senior judge there to be able to advise the commission as to what that balance of cases is, and who might be best put on the bench that has the expertise in areas where they may be lacking within that Judicial District,” Quirmbach said.

Garrett argued that judges would still allowed to weigh in on the nominating process through comments and recommendations as members of the public. But having judges on the nominating commission puts practicing attorneys in a difficult position if they disagree with the judge on a commission.

“Your bread and butter depends on your relationship, and the judge rendering an objective opinion,” Garrett said. “And I don’t think it’s hard to understand: Attorneys might be a little intimidated from disagreeing with the judge.”

Garrett said this dynamic has been a problem in the past. Former District Judge Kurt Stoebe was accused of making disparaging remarks about candidates for a judicial vacancy in 2021. Reynolds rejected the commission’s picks after learning about the comments.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the legislation, which is now available for consideration by the full Senate.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.