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January 14th, 2011

Meet Your Candidates

By Nathan Tucker

Iowa Judicial Watch (IJW) has learned who the candidates are for elected positions on the State Judicial Nominating Commission, but most reading this will not be able to vote for them.  Under current law, only attorneys are able to vote for elected members of the various nominating commissions, who themselves must also be attorneys.

The state nominating commission reviews applicants for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals and forwards the names of three finalists to the governor for appointment.  The governor must appoint one of the three finalists forwarded to him by the commission and, if the governor fails to make an appointment within 30 days, the decision falls to the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The commission currently consists of fifteen members.  Seven are selected by the governor (and confirmed by the Senate), and seven are lawyers elected by resident attorneys practicing in the state.  Appointed and elected commissioners serve for staggered six year terms.  The final seat is reserved for the chair of the commission, who is the most senior Supreme Court justice who is not the chief justice.  The current chair of the commission is Justice Wiggins.

The terms of three of the seven elected attorneys will expire June 30th of this year.  The election cycle began when the State Court Administrator sent out a Notice of Election dated November 15, 2010, to all eligible attorneys.  In order to have one’s name placed on the ballot, an attorney had to have a nominating petition signed by at least 50 resident members of the bar in his congressional district.  Nominating petitions had to be filed by January 1, 2011.

On January 6, 2011, ballots were sent out to eligible voters and must be returned to the Court Administrator by January 31, 2011.  Though the airwaves are silent of attack ads and there are no Campaign Carls covering campaign rallies, the campaigns for these commission seats are nonetheless very real with very far reaching consequences.

Unfortunately, it is currently impossible for the general public to participate in these elections, and almost impossible to learn anything about them.  As is too often the case when trying to learn anything about the commission system, it took a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the names of the current elected members and those running to replace them.

Below are the list of the candidates that the general public cannot vote for, along with whatever information IJW could find about them.  In order to better learn about their background, experience, and ideology, IJW has sent each candidate a questionnaire and asked them to return it by Friday, January 21, 2011.  We note the responses received to date, and additional responses will be posted on our website as we receive them.

1st Congressional District:

Jean Dickson, a Davenport attorney, currently represents the 1st Congressional District, which in 1965 encompassed Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Jefferson, Johnson, Lee, Louisa, Muscatine, Scott, Van Buren, and Washington counties.

Under current law, the candidate must be male.  The four candidates are:

Darwin Bunger

Bunger is a Burlington trial attorney and registered Democrat.  He has given a combined total of $2,250 to the American Association of Trial Lawyer’s PAC, $500 to Democrat Roxanne Conlin’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, $750 to Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley, $250 to Democratic Congressman Leonard Boswell, and $100 to Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack.

Martin Diaz

Diaz is an Iowa City trial attorney and registered Democrat.  Altogether, he has given $500 to Democrat Roxanne Conlin’s senate campaign, $2,000 to Democratic Congressman David Loebsack, $7,650 to Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley, $1,750 to Democratic Congressman Leonard Boswell, $500 to Democratic President Barack Obama, $2,500 to Democratic Governor Chet Culver, $1,500 to the Iowa Democratic Party, and $750 to the Johnson County Democratic Central Committee.

Robert McMonagle

McMonagle is a Davenport trial attorney and a registered Republican.  He has made no campaign contributions that IJW could uncover.

McMonagle did return a completed Questionnaire to IJW, though he declined to answer questions regarding his judicial philosophy by stating:

As a currently serving Marine Corps officer, I believe it would be improper for me to outline my ideology with the specificity requested in this question.

I have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and follow the orders of the President. Whether I agree with who occupies the White House, which Party controls Congress, or what decisions are made by the Supreme Court is irrelevant; I have sworn to uphold the laws of this country, so should refrain from public comment.

This is a polite but non-plausible excuse for refusing to answer the questions.  The judicial ideology section of IJW’s Questionnaire did not ask McMonagle about whether he agrees with the President, Congress, or a particular state or federal Supreme Court.  Rather, they are simply generic law-school type essay questions, and there is nothing in Department of Defense regulations that prohibits an officer from answering them.

For instance, DOD regulations allow officers to engage in nonpartisan political activity, which includes issues “relating to constitutional amendments, referendums, approval of municipal ordinances, and others of similar character are not considered as specifically being identified with national or State political parties.”  So long as they do not act as a representative of the Armed Forces, officers can express a personal opinion on political candidates and issues.

Kent Simmons

Simmons is a Davenport criminal attorney and registered Democrat.  He has given $250 to Bob Rush, the unsuccessful Democratic congressional candidate in 1998.  He has also given $100 to the Iowa Bar Association’s PAC and $25 to the Iowa Democratic Party.  He previously served as a commissioner on the local trial court nominating commission from 1998 to 2004.

Simmons responded to our Questionnaire by simply providing IJW with copies of appellate cases he has argued.  They are as follows:

  • Iowa v. Cromer, 765 N.W.2d 1 (2009)
  • Hannan v. Iowa, 732 N.W.2d 45 (2007)
  • Millan v. Iowa, 745 N.W.2d 719 (2008)
  • Fullenwider v. Iowa, 674 N.W.2d 73 (2004)
  • Iowa v. McCoy, 692 N.W.2d 6 (2005)

Interestingly, he did not include a copy of Simmons v Public Defender (2010). one of the Iowa Supreme Court’s most recent examples of judicial activism in which the justices ruled in his favor.

2nd Congressional District:

Steven J. Pace, a Cedar Rapids attorney, currently represents the 2nd Congressional District, which in 1965 includes Allamakee, Buchanan, Clayton, Clinton, Delaware, Dubuque, Fayette, Jackson, Jones, Linn, and Winnershiek counties.

Under current law, the candidate must be female.  The two candidates are:

Mary Chicchelly

Chicchelly is a family law attorney in Cedar Rapids and a registered Republican.  She has contributed $100 to recent Democratic House candidate Mark Seidl, her brother and law partner.

Christine Conover

Conover is a Cedar Rapids attorney who primarily defends corporations from personal injury lawsuits.  She is a registered Democrat who has given $100 to Attorney General Tom Miller (D), $150 to Democratic Governor Chet Culver, $150 to Democratic State Senator Rob Hogg, and $25 to the Iowa Democratic Party

6th Congressional District:

Joseph L. Fitzgibbions, an Esterville attorney, currently represents the 6th Congressional District, which in 1965 encompassed the following counties:  Buena Vista, Calhoun, Cherokee, Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, Humboldt, Ida, Kossouth, Lyon, O’Brien, Osceola, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Pocahontas, Sac, Sioux, and Woodbury.

Under current law, the candidate must be female.  There is only one candidate for the vacancy:

Suzan Boden

Boden is a Sioux City attorney who practices in the areas of adoption, civil litigation, and worker’s compensation.  She is a registered Democrat who has contributed a total of $670 to the Iowa Trial Lawyer Association’s PAC.

She was a commissioner on the local trial court nominating commission, as well as a former Department of Transportation Commissioner.

Conclusion:

We should make this the last election for commissioners in which the franchise is denied to the general voting public.  Placing the process in the hands of those elected by and accountable to the people is real and fundamental change we can believe in and enact this year.  The next municipal elections will be held this coming November, and it should not be too much to ask that we will be given a chance to vote in that election for our own commissioners.

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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 nathanwt@juno.com.




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