Bill would allow for partisan selection of judges


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Iowa Supreme Court Building

Jacob Smith

Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are looking to make changes in the process of which judges are selected, something that could give greater control over court decisions.

House File 503 and Senate File 237 both propose instituting a change in which legislatures and the governor are given more power in the process of selecting judges.

The alteration would allow for the governor and legislatures to have more of a say in who is selected for the State Judicial Nominating Commission. The commission helps decide which judges are selected for the Iowa Supreme Court and Iowa Court of Appeals.

Currently, judges are chosen based on a merit-selection system. The commission vets, interviews and then recommends a list of candidates to the governor for choosing. Once appointed, judges face retention elections every six years.

“The design of the system is supposed to strike a balance between having what are intended to be objective folks looking and finding a list of highly qualified people and then having the political process come in with the gubernatorial selection from that list,” said David Peterson, professor of political science.

Although the board consists of eight Republican lawyers, Peterson said that the “Republicans claim is that the lawyers themselves are political as well.”

An argument for the change could be that it would place more accountability on legislatures, but others say making the system too political could create mistrust.

“The way it would place more accountability, or the idea of placing more accountability, is that voters have to hold them accountable,” Peterson said. “Voters have to know what they did, know who they selected, know how the individual legislature had influence over that outcome and then vote based because of it. That’s not gonna happen.”

For Peterson, he thinks the reason for the judicial changes is rooted in finding a short term for abortion politics.

In 2010, three judges were voted out of office following the unanimous decision legalizing same-sex marriage. After residing in Iowa since 2009, Peterson said, “that’s the only time I’ve seen any of these elections politicalized.”

Peterson said these changes would likely not have as large of an impact as some claim.

“The empirical evidence on the effect of judicial selection says that most of our concerns over these things are overblown,” Peterson said. “I’m relatively skeptical that it would have much of a broad difference in the outcomes.”

Peterson said giving the governor and legislatures more power works well for the Republicans as long as they control those positions. This could potentially backfire in the future, however.

“They are maximizing their best-case scenario while also maximizing their worst-case scenario,” Peterson said.