Home politics Don’t let politics infect selection of Iowa judges

Don’t let politics infect selection of Iowa judges


Rachel Paine Caufield, Iowa View contributor
Published 2:43 p.m. CT Aug. 10, 2018

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Governor Kim Reynolds announces her pick for Iowa’s next state Supreme Court justice, Susan Christensen.
Kelsey Kremer, kkremer@dmreg.com

American democracy depends on fair courts.  Our courts function to guarantee equal justice and serve as an important check on politicians in the executive and legislative branches.  We must safeguard Iowa’s courts by resisting efforts to inject politics into the judicial selection process.  When politics drives the selection of judges, our courts lose their impartiality.
 
In states that elect judges, like Illinois, political parties or interest groups choose and fund candidates. Sometimes it’s Democrats vs. Republicans. More often, it’s unions, trial lawyers, environmental groups, and civil rights groups on one side, corporations, gun manufacturers, and certain religious organizations on another side. Voters choose between two extremes.  Candidates make promises about how they’ll rule before ever seeing the facts of a case.  That is not a fair and impartial justice system.
 
The federal system is broken, and getting worse. When an executive – a president or governor – is given the power to unilaterally choose nominees to the court, we end up with judges whose first qualification is their loyalty to a specific ideology.  It’s led to a game of political chicken between Republicans and Democrats over recent nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, like Merrick Garland and Brett Kavanaugh.
 
Iowa does judicial selection better. A non-partisan commission evaluates applicants and selects the most qualified, sending a list to the governor, who makes the final choice. It’s called merit selection because it puts fairness, impartiality, and qualifications ahead of politics.

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 Iowa’s merit selection system ensures accountability and transparency. While judges are nominated by a commission and chosen by the governor, voters have the final say. In 2010, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were removed in a retention election. While many may doubt the wisdom of that result, no one can claim that voters lack a voice. And the process is transparent. The statewide nominating commission just finished vetting applicants for a vacancy on the Iowa Supreme Court and all applications and interviews remain available online.
 
I offer no claim that Iowa’s system is perfect, but Iowa’s courts are regularly ranked as among the best in the country.
 
Recently, local political activist Joel Kurtinitis wrote a column in the Register complaining that Iowa’s process gives too much power to the Iowa State Bar Association. It doesn’t.
 
In fact, the bar association has no role or power in the merit selection system. Iowa’s system provides that applicants are thoroughly evaluated by non-lawyer representatives appointed by the governor, as well as legal professionals selected by their peers in their communities. Twenty-two states use some form of this system. It produces well-qualified judges, it keeps political motivations at bay, and it’s proven to work better than all known alternatives.
 
Following the 2010 elections, activists spent two legislative sessions trying, unsuccessfully, to dismantle merit selection in Iowa. Sen. Chuck Grassley was a state lawmaker when Iowa’s merit selection system was established. In 2012, he stepped in to remind Iowans of the bigger picture: “I’m the guy who voted in 1959 and 1961 for (Iowa’s) present way of selecting judges… it was a very forward-looking thing to do what we did 50 years ago.”
 
Iowa has been lucky to hold on to this system since 1962. It hasn’t been easy. It has required legislative leaders who resist the pressures of extremists at either end of the political spectrum.
 
In other states, and at the federal level, the judicial selection process puts politics first. Not in Iowa. Let’s keep it that way.

Rachel Paine Caufield, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Drake University, and spent 10 years examining state judicial selection methods as a Research Fellow with The American Judicature Society.

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