HSB 110/SSB1101 Gives Politicians Immediate and Total Control Over Judicial Selection

HSB 110/SSB1101 represents the largest power grab ever attempted in Iowa. The courts are an independent branch of government. This bill puts politicians in complete control of selecting judges, which threatens our system of checks and balances. Iowa has the best judicial selection system in the country. No system is better at nominating the highest qualified applicants to judgeships while keeping political motivations at bay. Iowa should not settle for less than that.

Putting Politicians in Control of Judicial Selection

Currently, Iowa attorneys from every part of the state or district, every type of law practice, every age, gender, race, and every political persuasion vote to elect the lawyer commissioners who are best suited to evaluate applicants for the district and appellate courts. Under the current system, only those attorneys who have gained the full trust of the legal community in their district are elevated to the elected positions on the judicial nominating commission, which make up one-half of each commission.

Under HSB 110/SSB1101, only attorneys who are political insiders will serve on the commissions, and they will be selected to serve as a vessel for the ideologies of the politicians who appointed them. Commission interviews of applicants to the bench will mimic the highly partisan U.S. Senate judicial appointment hearings; commissioners will seek to score political points rather than identify the highest qualified applicants.

Lawyers elect/select the lawyers on judicial nominating commissions in 22 of the 34 states which use nominating commissions at some level of judicial selection. Like most of our neighboring states, Iowa is one of 10 states that uses the preferred method of lawyers electing lawyer commissioners. Click here for a chart of how states fill judicial nominating commissions. HSB 110/SSB1101 would put Iowa in with the minority of states that not only allow politicians (and/or judges) to appoint all members of the judicial nominating commissions, but do so without requiring party balance. 

Accountability

Unlike the federal system, where lifetime appointment of judges allows for absolutely no accountability, Iowa sets short judicial terms and gives voters the final say on every judge through regular retention elections. Iowa’s current system puts accountability directly in the hands of the people. Giving politicians immediate and total control over who becomes a judge does not expand accountability it expands politics.

Removing Judges as Commission Members and Chairs

Each of Iowa’s judicial nominating commissions benefits from the guidance of a longstanding judge who serves in that jurisdiction. No person is better suited to express the current needs of that court and the demands of the job to fellow commissioners than an experienced sitting judge. Removing the judge as a commission member eliminates needed institutional knowledge.

The role of a longstanding judge as commission chair is just as important to the process. As a representative of the court, the judge’s leadership helps keep politics and agendas in check, and keeps commissioners focused on their duty, which is to nominate the highest qualified applicants to the governor for appointment. Shifting the role of commission chair to a political appointee will put political motivations at the head of the table.

Expanding the Higher Court Slate of Nominees from 3 to 5

The judicial nominating commission is tasked with winnowing the field to only the highest qualified applicants. Expanding the slate of nominees is akin to lowering the standard of who can become a judge from highest qualified, to just qualified. Yes, expanding the slate of nominees gives more discretion to politicians over who becomes a judge, but that fact does not make it good policy.

False Assumptions

Many politicians' complaint about Iowa's system is that it gives too much power to the Iowa State Bar Association. It doesn't. In fact, the bar association has no role or power in Iowa's judicial selection system.

Also, politicians have complained that the commissions are dominated by Democrats. Also false. In fact, Republicans outnumber Democrats on Iowa judicial nominating commissions 2-1. See the data here