Governor Terry Branstad nominated three individuals to the Iowa Supreme Court yesterday afternoon. Branstad named two judges, Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager, as well as Davenport attorney Thomas Waterman to fill the three vacant positions created by the results of last November’s retention campaign.
Members of the news media and critics of Iowa’s nominating process have been quick to criticize Branstad’s decisions. All three are registered Republicans, but their political affiliations are not being criticized as mush as other issues. Some lament that the court will not have a female member for the first time since 1986. Others question Waterman’s selection since he donated $7500 to Branstad’s campaign last fall.
Those who are disappointed that the court lacks a female justice shouldn’t blame Branstad, they should blame the members of the Judicial Nominating Commission who chose to only forward one female candidate, Angela Onwuachi-Willig.
Onwuachi-Willig, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, was only admitted to practice law in the state of Iowa on the very day that nominating committee selected her to be one of the nine finalists. Being licensed to practice law in the state of Iowa is a requirement being named to the Court.
Guy Cook, a member of the nominating committee, told the Associated Press that he was disappointed that no women will serve on the court. However, at a Federalist Society panel discussion on Monday night, Cook proclaimed that Onwuachi-Willig was the only female applicant out of the twelve who applied who was qualified. Cook’s assessment is interesting considering that Gayle Vogel, a judge on the Court of Appeals, was deemed qualified by the judicial nominating committee in 1996. Has she somehow become less quailed after spending 14 years on the bench? There were several other female applicants with significant judicial experience who also applied, but apparently they were not qualified either.
The reason why there is no female on the Iowa Supreme Court is because the nominating committee tried to force Branstad’s hand by only nominating one female – the ultra-liberal Onwuachi-Willig. Not only did she inject herself in the Varnum case that basically led to the ouster of the three Supreme Court Justices who were up for retention in 2010 by writing an amicus brief in support of gay rights, but she shouldn’t have even been considered since she was not licensed to practice law in Iowa at the time she submitted her application.
As for Waterman’s rather substantial contribution to Branstad’s campaign, the committee was fully aware of his political activity at the time that he was interviewed. Justices Wiggins and Appel both donated thousands of dollars to gubernatorial campaigns and political parties. If those political contributions didn’t preclude them from being nominated to the court, then the same standard should apply for Waterman.
It is also highly likely that, had Iowa used a federal style nominating system where the Governor nominates and the State Senate confirms, Branstad wouldn’t have selected one of his donors because of the questions that would be raised. It’s also probably safe to assume that he would have surely nominated at least one woman to the bench.
While these three justices will forever be known as Branstad nominees, they really have been selected by a Democrat dominated judicial nominating committee, not the Governor. Branstad did the best he could do with a system that affords him no opportunity to select a nominee that meets his qualifications.
For those who find it necessary to criticize, it’s the judicial nominating committee that deserves scrutiny, not a governor who had very few options and very little influence on the nominating process.
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