Iowa’s Judicial Nominating System: Before and After the 2019 Reynolds Power Grab

Iowa’s Judicial Nominating System:
Before and After the 2019 Reynolds Power Grab

Dear Friends:

On May 8, 2019, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill in a late-night, closed-door session of the Legislature that gives one politician — the Governor herself — majority control over the process for nominating justices to Iowa’s highest court. With one stroke of her pen, Reynolds pressed a partisan political thumb on the scale, disrupting a merit-based system that protected the Iowa Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals for nearly 60 years from the political rancor over judicial appointments we see in other states and Washington, D.C.

Yet, it could have been worse … much worse
Led by politicians and special interests with an axe to grind, the original measure as introduced by Iowa Republicans would have handed over the judicial nominating commissions hook, line and sinker to political insiders. Understandably when all the shouting stopped, many Iowans may have lost track of exactly how the judicial nominating system actually changed. The final bill changed nothing about the system for selecting district court judges that serve in county courthouses, overseeing trials. Here is a one-minute overview of how the final bill changed the selection of judges for Iowa’s appellate courts:

BEFORE the 2019 Partisan Power Grab

  • The state nominating commission for vacancies on the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals was made up of one senior Supreme Court Justice, eight members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Iowa Senate, and eight members were selected by Iowa lawyers.
  • The 17-member nominating commission evaluated the qualifications of each applicant and sent the top three candidates to the Governor. The Governor appointed one person to fill the vacancy.
  • Iowans had the final say in retention elections.

AFTER the 2019 Partisan Power Grab

  • The Governor now appoints nine members to the nominating commission, which are confirmed by the Iowa Senate. Iowa lawyers elect eight members of the commission.
  • The Governor’s additional appointee removes the standing position of commission chair, previously held by a senior justice of the state Supreme Court.
  • The nomination process remains the same with the top three applicants sent to the Governor for final appointment. All justices continue to face retention elections at the end of their terms.

With the ninth appointment, applicants may be left wondering whether the commission is making political calculations rather than relying solely on the strength of the experience and qualifications of the candidates. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long to see the commission do the right thing and choose merit and qualifications over party politics.

Earlier this year Sam Langholz applied to replace retiring justice, David Wiggins. Langholz, a political advisor and legal counsel to Governor Reynolds, may have represented the most partisan judicial application Iowa has ever seen. The commission rejected his application, sending a strong message that our system still functions as intended.

Bottom line? While the judicial nominating system has endured over a decade of continued political attacks, Iowa courts remain impartial and continue to provide Iowans with a fair day in court via judges who are more concerned about justice than political gain.

Our promise to every Iowan and members of our diverse coalition is that Justice Not Politics will carry on this fight to protect our courts.

To further illustrate how Iowa’s system works, see JNP’s Know Your Courts page: http://www.justicenotpolitics.org/know-your-courts/.

Help us grow our coalition of supporters of fair courts. Share this article on social media and ask your friends to join Justice Not Politics at this link: https://iowajustice.salsalabs.org/justicenotpoliticssignup.

The Justice Not Politics Team