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March 6th, 2011

Judicial Reform Tabled – For Now

By Nathan Tucker

Any chance that judicial reform legislation would make it out of the Iowa General Assembly this year died a quiet death Thursday at the close of funnel week.  Though several reform bills were introduced in both the chambers of the Iowa legislature, none of them made it out of committee to live another day.

Despite an overwhelming majority of conservatives in the Iowa House, the Republican leadership seemed less than eager to take steps to reform the process to prevent activist judges from assuming the bench in the first place.  Republicans, at either the committee or House level, never caucused on this issue, nor did the judiciary committee actually vote on any of the proposed legislation.  Rather, the bills were allowed to be quietly tabled as funnel week expired.

All of the bills were, unsurprisingly, opposed by the Iowa State Bar Association, Iowa Trial Lawyers Association, and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.  Other organizations, however, such as the Iowa Academy of Trial Lawyers, Iowa Judges Association, Iowa Defense Counsel Association, and Iowa Association of Business and Industry had not yet registered any opposition to the proposed changes.

The bills were tabled, speculated one legislator, because “for some reason the leadership apparently is not ready to move any particular bill.  Perhaps they have not had time to examine the issue thoroughly.”  Certainly the complexity of the issue, and the fact that few, if any, legislators ran on a pledge to reform the judicial selection process, contributed to the General Assembly’s lethargy on the issue.

Reform legislation was also overshadowed, particularly at the beginning of the legislative session, by the debate over ancillary issues such as the impeachment and/or resignation of the remaining Varnum justices.  Whatever their theoretical merit, the practical effect of this debate served to distract from constructive efforts to reform the system.  Even if successful, the removal, voluntary or involuntary, of the justices would have done nothing to remedy a process that continues to send to the governor a stacked deck.

But all of this aside, judicial reform legislation would likely have survived funnel week to be debated by the entire House but for the inertia of Rep. Richard Anderson (R), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.  It first became apparent when Anderson submitted his application for a seat on the Iowa Supreme Court that he had no interest in taking an active role on this issue.

Though later withdrawn, his apparent willingness to submit his application and thereby place his fate in the hands of a commission which would be the subject of any reform efforts signaled his lack of interest in any such legislation.  This suspicion was later confirmed when, on learning of the Governor’s recent appointees to the Supreme Court, Anderson told the Des Moines Register that “the selection process proves that Iowa has a great judicial merit selection process, and that’s confirmed by the governor’s appointment of these three individuals.”

Given such lavish, though wholly unwarranted, praise for Iowa’s currently judicial selection process, it is no wonder that reform legislation died a quiet death at the end of funnel week.  Though Anderson himself has declined comment, another legislator told The Iowa Republican that the judiciary committee chair would not have actively opposed any reform efforts.  His actions, however, have made it apparent that he also wasn’t going to do anything to actively support any reform legislation.

It is not uncommon for it to take several sessions to pass a piece of legislation, especially one of the complexity and magnitude as this one.  To be successful in the future, reform efforts will have to concentrate on educating both legislators and the public alike on how the current process works and its gross shortcomings.  It will also take leadership on the part of public officials to take advantage of the opportunities posed by teaching moments.  Finally, it will require conservatives to be united in efforts to constructively and fundamentally change the process to prevent judicial activism in the future.

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About the Author

Nathan W. Tucker
Nathan W. Tucker is a Davenport attorney and author of We The People: The Only Cure to Judicial Activism. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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