Iowa Courts Avoid “Horror Stories” Seen In D.C. and Other States… So Far!

October 13, 2020

As the U.S. Senate wades into another politically motivated showdown over judicial selection and partisan judicial elections heat up in multiple nearby states, Iowans have even more cause to reflect on how well our state court functions in comparison. But first…

Let’s take a walk down Iowa Courts “Memory Lane.”

Back in the 1930s, Americans were increasingly concerned about the role of politics, partisanship, and money in judicial selection. So in 1940, voters in Missouri decided to shield the courts from the corrupting influence of money and politics by adopting a merit-based plan for the selection of judges.

Fast forward to 1962 when Iowa voters approved their own version of the Missouri Plan where a nonpartisan and gender-balanced nominating commission reviews applications, interviews candidates and selects nominees for the Governor to consider before making final appointments. Over the last 60 years, this made Iowa’s judicial system one of the finest and most admired in the country, safeguarding fairness in sharp contrast to a growing list of other states where justice is basically for sale.

Reflecting on his support of this proposal as a then-state legislator, Senator Grassley said, “I’m the guy who voted in 1959 and 1961 for (Iowa’s) present way of selecting judges,” adding that, “it was a very forward-looking thing to do what we did.”

As you know, the Iowa plan has sustained major attacks. In 2010, outside extremist groups – aligned with Bob Vander Plaats – pumped nearly $1 million into a smear campaign to defeat the retention of three highly respected Iowa Supreme Court Justices (Justice Not Politics was formed in response). And in 2019, Gov. Kim Reynolds and a conservative Iowa legislative majority passed a law that injected politics into the judicial nominating system despite a majority of Iowans saying over and over again: “Don’t mess with fair courts in Iowa!”

But so far we have avoided the horror stories from states where dark money, negative attack ads and legislative maneuvering have all but destroyed citizen confidence in the courts. Here are just a few representative “low-lights” from the 2017-18 state supreme court election cycle, as reported by the Brennan Center for Justice:

  • Money
    Nearly $40 million was spent on campaigns across 21 states – $28.3 million by judicial candidates, $10.8 million by special interest groups and the rest by political parties. In some states like Arkansas and West Virginia, special interests vastly outspent the candidates they supported.
  • Conflict of Interest
    Too often campaign contributions are made by the same people who later appear before the justices they bankrolled. Take Ohio for example where in 2018, insurance employees and industry groups pumped nearly $150,000 into the campaign of one “friendly” justice while the court was considering a lower court ruling affecting the bottom line of an Ohio insurance company.
  • Hidden Donors
    Dark money accounted for 82 percent of all special interest spending, “meaning that the public either could not identify or would face major obstacles identifying who was truly behind the spending.” Example in point: State Farm insurance settled a lawsuit in 2018 that alleged it had successfully disguised its effort to manipulate a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court election.

Of course all of this illustrates how important an informed electorate is to a fair and impartial court, and by extension, equal justice for all citizens regardless of financial clout or political connections. Iowa’s merit selection and retention process still stands as a firewall against the dark money, conflicts-of-interest and hit-squad campaign tactics rife in other states.

Similarly, it stands as a firewall against the type of nightmare political showdowns that take place at the federal level with each Supreme Court opening. According to recent news reports, an estimated $40 million will be spent by groups supporting or opposing the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

We have so much to fight for here in Iowa, and we can take nothing for granted. To that end, we look forward to your continued support of Justice Not Politics.

The Justice Not Politics Team

PS: If you haven’t voted yet, review biographies, backgrounds and attorney rankings for all the Iowa judges listed on the back of your ballot by visiting the JNP resource page here.