Iowa’s Supreme Court Protected Gay Marriage and Abortion Rights—and Republican Lawmakers Are Out for Payback

“It’s just an extreme political power grab.”

Conservative Iowa lawmakers are advancing a bill that would change the long-standing way judges are selected in the state. Critics of the legislation, introduced in early February, say it is motivated by displeasure over state courts blocking abortion and same-sex marriage bans.

“It’s just an extreme political power grab by legislators who are unhappy with our current system because they disagree with some court cases,” says Connie Ryan, director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and chair of Justice Not Politics, a nonpartisan group aimed at protecting Iowa courts from special interest groups.

In 1962, voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring that Iowa justices be chosen using a merit selection system in which the governor appoints judges from candidates selected by nominating commissions. Half of the nominating commission members, a mix of lawyers and other Iowans, are, in turn, chosen by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Iowa lawyers elect the other half. Thirteen other states use a similar method to choose judges.

Under the proposed change, which would specifically affect the state Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, the governor would still make the same number of picks for the commission, but state lawmakers would select the other half instead of attorneys, meaning that politicians would squarely control the nominating process, and 75 percent of the commission would be appointed by the political party in power. No commissioners would need senate confirmation.

Legal experts and advocates say that this move is the culmination of legislators’ efforts to secure more influence over the judicial branch that began after the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban in 2009. In the aftermath of that decision, well-funded conservative activists and special interest groups led a successful campaign to oust three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices, the first such instance since Iowa adopted the merit selection system 48 years earlier. Since then, conservative lawmakers have tried to chip away at the judicial appointment process through legislation, including failed bids to re-establish judicial elections and modify the selection process, though past efforts have had less support.

More recently, conservative lawmakers have been dismayed by Iowa court rulings against anti-abortion legislation. In January, a state judge overturned a fetal heartbeat ban that effectively outlawed abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and was considered one of the most restrictive laws in the country at the time. He based his decision in part on a June ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court declaring a fundamental right to abortion under the state constitution while rejecting a law requiring a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions.

Speaking to anti-abortion activists gathered at the Iowa Capitol in late February, Gov. Kim Reynolds reassured the crowd that while she wouldn’t try to appeal the court’s ruling against limiting abortion, change was coming to appoint more judges who “will apply the law and adhere to the Constitution of Iowa and the Constitution of the United States, not inject their own philosophy.”

Mother Jones magazine
April 8, 2019

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