Last week, the Iowa Senate passed a bill (SF 237) to change how Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges are selected in our state. I understand this bill is controversial. Constituents on both sides of this issue contacted me to express their views.
I supported this bill and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I believe the reforms passed in our bill will improve the selection process.
Our state constitution outlines a process for selecting judges that many Iowans may not understand. When there is a vacancy on either court, a judicial nominating commission meets to select nominees to fill the vacancy. The governor’s appointee must be one of these finalists.
Iowa’s process puts elevated importance on the composition of the nominating commission. The commission has 17 members. The governor appoints eight commissioners who serve staggered six-year terms. The governor’s appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. The other eight members are elected by Iowa lawyers. The most senior justice on the Iowa Supreme Court serves as the chair and the 17th member of the commission.
The process is not without its flaws. One has to do with the role of the senior justice. As chair, the justice heavily influences the ground rules for selecting his or her next colleague. The rules, including the commission’s voting process, can play a critical role in how it arrives at a decision. If they argue cases before the Supreme Court, a justice’s recommendation can present a conflict of interest for the lawyer members if they disagree with it. SF 237 solves this problem by removing the justice from the committee and letting the commission members elect their own chair.
Second, Senate confirmation of gubernatorial appointments injects partisan politics into the process. I can recall gubernatorial appointments to the commission being voted down during my time in the Senate. While I cannot speak to motive, I think it is fair to say that politics plays a part in the confirmation process regardless of which party controls the chamber. SF 237 removes the Senate confirmation requirement, taking that political process out of the equation.
Third, we have started to see lawyers spend money to actively campaign for election to the commission. If we follow down that path, we could get to the point where one political party controls all of the seats on the commission. This would be a dangerous result. SF 237 protects against this happening by providing that all lawyers will be appointed rather than elected. SF 237 also lets legislative leaders from both parties appoint people to the commission.
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I was skeptical of this at first, but upon further reflection I think this is a good way to protect against one party controlling every position on the commission.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has consistently rated Iowa judges and the judicial branch as among the best in the country. I believe Iowa will maintain this standing if SF 237 is enacted. SF 237 is based on how Connecticut selects its commission members. Connecticut’s rankings in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey are equivalent to Iowa’s on balance. They are even higher than Iowa in key categories like quality of appellate review.
STATE SEN. CHARLES SCHNEIDER, R-West Des Moines, represents District 22, which includes Clive, Waukee, portions of West Des Moines, and Windsor Heights. He can be reached at 281-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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