DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa has used the same judicial nominating process for over five decades but some are pushing to change that.
Iowa's system is merit based selection. This means there is a nonpartisan nominating commission made up of eight lawyers chosen by the Iowa Bar and eight others selected by the governor. The group reviews applications and chooses candidates they believe are most qualified for the job and give recommendations to the governor for the final say.
This system has been in place since a Constitutional Amendment established it in 1962, according to the Iowa Judicial Branch.
“Merit selection is thought to be the best way to ensure that politics remains out of the process while at the same time guaranteeing you have a qualified judiciary," said Rachel Paine Caufield, political science professor at Drake University, who spent a decade as part of a national nonpartisan group that analyzed judicial nominating processes around the country.
26 states have a system similar to Iowa. Other states have partisan and nonpartisan elections. Some give the legislature or the governor the power to make appointments.
In wake of recent rulings from Iowa's high court on controversial issues like abortion, there have been renewed talks about changing the way Iowa nominates its judges.
“On both sides of the aisle courts sometimes hand down decisions that are unpopular politically. But the most important job of the a court is not to render decisions that are popular in terms of public opinion but instead render decisions that follow the law. So if people would like to change the law, that’s a separate question," Paine Caufield said.
Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, has introduced legislation in the past that he says would change the make-up of the nominating commission in order to give the Iowa Bar less power and would make the system more fair.
The bill would strip lawyers on the commission from having an input in deciding what judges get nominated to the courts. Under the proposal, the governor would tap all of the members of the commission and a member of the bar would be a non-voting member that oversees the process.
"There's no accountability for what the commission members may do. If the people don't like the governor's appointees, they can vote for a new governor," Garrett said. "But there is no similar mechanism if they don't like [the members from the Iowa Bar]."
"It's a very undemocratic way in choosing the half the bar selects," Garrett continued.
He said that proposal and others are on the table for 2019. Changing the make-up of the commission, he said, would require only legislation to change it. Any further changes to the system structure--like shifting to an elections system---would require a Constitutional Amendment. That would take approval from two General Assemblies and a voter referendum.
The Governor signaled last week at her weekly press conference that she'd be open to looking at any proposals on the issue.
“I’m opening to taking a look at it and this is the process that it’ll go through to make that happen," she said Tuesday, December 11.
Lawmakers return to Des Moines January 14 for the 2019 legislative session.