August 18th, 2010

Iowa’s Partisan Judicial Selection Process

By Emily Geiger

If I hear one more person tout the awesome “nonpartisan” system Iowa has for selecting judges, I’m going to puke.

It happened yet again yesterday when I was reading a column in the Register (I know, what was I thinking?) by Marc Hansen.

He was talking to some middle school civics teachers and listing a whole bunch of hot-button political issues that could be great classroom fodder once school starts this month.

One of these issues was the judicial selection process in Iowa. Hansen wrote:

Terry Branstad, running for governor again, wants to change the way we choose judges. In Iowa, the governor picks from a list provided by a nonpartisan nominating commission.

The problem is, these nominating commissions are anything but nonpartisan.

TIR’s legal eagle, Nathan Tucker, did a little research on this issue a few weeks back, and he deserves an award for his findings. What he wrote was truly an exposé. In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights, or lowlights as the case may be.

Supreme Court Justices:

-5 out of 7 were appointed by Democrat Governors, none of the 7 are or ever have been registered Republicans

-2 are registered Democrats (Michael Streit and Daryl Hecht)

-4 more were registered Democrats before their appointment to the Court (Marsha Ternus, Mark Cady, David Wiggins, and Brent Appel).

-The final justice claims to be Independent, but he has donated large sums of money to Democrats. David Baker gave $250 to Iowans for Vilsack Pederson, Inc. in 2003, and $2,500 to the Iowa Democratic Party.

-Wiggins has donated $9,000 to democratic candidates or the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) in the last 12 years.

-Appel, whose wife is a very liberal Democrat state senator, has donated over $38,000 to Democratic candidates or the IDP in the last several years.

Appellate Court Justices:

-6 out of 9 are Democrats or were registered as Democrats before appointment to the Court

-7 out of 9 were appointed by Democrat governors, including all 6 Democrats

-2 of the 3 Republicans were appointed by Republican governors

Trial Courts:

-83 judges have been appointed during the Culver and Vilsack administrations

-50 of those judges (60%) are registered Democrats

-16 of those judges (19%) are registered Republicans

-10 of those judges (12%) are Independents (but 3 are former Democrats and 2 are former Republicans)

-Voter information could not be found on 7 judges.

So how does this happen? Why didn’t Branstad appoint two Republicans when he had the chance instead of Ternus and Cady? Well, the answer is simple. He only had 2-3 people to choose from, and the group that chooses those 2-3 people is also dominated by Democrats and has been for a long time.

The short list from which the governor can appoint is determined by what called the Judicial Nominating Commission. The Commission that picks people for the Appellate and Supreme Courts is made up of 14 people. Seven are attorneys elected by other attorneys. Seven are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

As Tucker pointed out, right now, all seven members appointed by the governor are Democrats. Four more of the elected members are Democrats. One is an Independent, one is a Republican, and one claims to be a Republican, but has donated over $10,000 to IDP, Bruce Braley, Roxanne Conlin, and Tom Harkin in recent years.

Some people are calling for a change to the rules regulating the Nominating Commissions requiring equal numbers Democrats and Republicans. However, this won’t stop the problem cited above where people essentially lie about their party affiliation while really supporting the other party. There are numerous examples of Democrats doing this on other state Boards and Commissions, and Peter Teahen, former Co-Chair of Bob Vander Plaats’ campaign, was famously called out for this same behavior during his congressional campaign when it came out he had been a registered Democrat for the purpose of getting appointed to a state board to fill a Democratic slot.

Perhaps you don’t like the open election of judges. Perhaps you think that process is partisan. Perhaps you even think that the Iowa system results in better judges (which, based on recent events, is highly debatable). That’s fine, but let’s not pretend that Iowa’s process for selecting judges is “nonpartisan.”

It is, in fact, highly partisan. And the thing that should scare everyone is that the partisanship in the current system is hidden from the public behind closed doors. It is the ultimate example of backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms (or at least it was until the smoking ban came about).

Seriously, if the process is going to be affected by partisanship, then let’s put it all out in the open so people know what they’re getting, either by judicial elections or gubernatorial appointment with open confirmation hearings. No more of this super-secret closed door stuff.

The one question I want answered by the advocates of the current system is, why do you trust a small group of elites to make these decisions, but not the people of Iowa or their elected representatives?

And on a side note, any changes to the judicial selection process require a change to the Iowa Constitution, which is just one more reason to support a constitutional convention.

About the Author

Battleground Iowa
Emily Geiger writes from a conservative perspective on everything from politics to religion to pop culture. Like the original Emily of Revolutionary War era, this Emily is delivering important messages crucial to winning the raging war of the time, but today, this is a culture war rather than a traditional one. And, like the original Emily, sometimes it takes a woman to do (or say) that which lesser men lack the courage and tenacity to do.

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