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Column

Iowa must have a merit-based system for Judicial selection

Iowa’s judiciary is a critical branch of our state’s government — and it needs to be fair and independent. Iowa citizens and businesses who rely on the courts to adjudicate their cases deserve transparency and faith in the process that puts Supreme Court Justices on the bench.

Here’s one big point: the legislation that passed the Iowa Senate this week keeps Iowa’s merit-based system firmly in place, and it works without changing the Iowa Constitution. Nor does the bill move our state towards electing those who don robes.

What the reform effort does do is improve the judicial nomination process in three key ways: restoring balance to the commission that creates the “short list” of nominees given to the governor, eliminating the chance for the Iowa Senate to turn nominees into a political football and making sure the commission itself isn’t dominated by a sitting judge.

First, Restoring Responsible Balance to Nominating Commissions: Iowa’s Judicial Nomination Commissions should nominate — not select judges. Too often the commissions pick their top nominees, rather than serve their important role of filtering through all qualified candidates to allow the Governor to make an informed final selection.

The bill passed in the Iowa Senate makes sure commissions don’t assume an uneven balance, in terms of Republican-Democrat or urban-rural. Right now, the state nominating commission is made up of 16 individuals. Eight are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, while eight are internally elected by members of the Iowa Bar.

There are serious concerns in terms of democratic fairness, partisan balance and rural-urban representation, about a closed group of lawyers having such a large say in our third branch of government with no legislative oversight. These concerns are compounded by the fact that a group of attorneys elects their own members to the commissions.

Under the proposed reforms, both Republicans and Democrats will always be represented by a minimum of four out of the sixteen commissioners (today, of the eight attorney commissioners, six are Democrats, one is Republican, and one is Independent). This is fair to both the minority and majority parties and holds elected officials accountable to voters.

This reform proposal is also good for our rural communities, who are often relegated to second-class status in Iowa’s legal community, especially when it comes to picking judges. The present process rewards urban lawyers who often select fellow attorneys to serve of the bench — increasingly, rural Iowa’s representation in the courtroom is being lost. This reform will correct this skew that currently tends to favor Iowa’s bigger cities over its equally important rural communities.

Second, Preventing Judges from Becoming Political Footballs: Keeping the Iowa Senate out of the confirmation process removes the potential for commissioners and prospective nominees from getting ensnared in senseless partisan battles — or worse, from donating to political actors they think can improve their chances of getting a spot on the bench for themselves or an ally. If the merit commission is fair and truly meritocratic in its recommendations, this reform makes sense.

Third, Keeping Commission Referees Fair:  An important reform is to ensure there is an independent chair of the commissions. Currently, a sitting justice serves as the chair or “referee” overseeing a commission comprised of an equal number of lawyers and lay people. Unfortunately, some justices have weighed in heavily on which candidates will be interviewed by the commission — a classic example of letting the fox guard the henhouse. The referee must never be the one to pre-select who will be sitting with them on Iowa’s highest court. This legislation would allow the commission to elect its own chair, rather than having a sitting justice have undue influence over the volunteer commissioners.

A Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms: Senate Joint Resolution 18 passed the Iowa Senate March 13. This legislation is about making sure Iowans maintain local control of their liberties, as our nation’s Constitution intends. It’s also the first step in placing the right to keep and bear arms in the Iowa Constitution. Iowa is one of only six states in the country to lack constitutional protections for this fundamental right, and this policy will help Iowa grant its citizens the same rights that virtually every other state protects this way, too.

The language in this legislation is nearly identical to the Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution with one important exception. It requires the Iowa Supreme Court to use high evaluation criteria on legal restrictions to the right of Iowans to keep and bear arms. The importance of this language was illustrated by a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in which states were only one vote away from losing significant local control over this issue.

This legislation also passed the Iowa House. In order for it to be added to the Iowa Constitution, it must be passed in the same manner in the next General Assembly and then passed by a majority of Iowans in a statewide vote.

Fair Laws to Promote Iowa Agriculture: Agriculture is a fundamental force in Iowa’s economy. When adversity strikes our ag sector, it often takes a toll on our economy statewide. Take, for example, four years ago when the avian flu ravaged the poultry industry in Iowa. That outbreak claimed 30 million hens and 1.5 million turkeys, resulting in the loss of 8,444 Iowa jobs and $1.2 billion in economic losses.

Iowa plays a significant role in both feeding the world and mouths right here in Iowa. Therefore, it is vital our farming operations have protections in place to prevent future outbreaks that threaten the world’s food supply as well as the state economy. One of those protections in disease prevention is strict biosecurity procedures. The Senate addressed these strict biosecurity measures this week with the passage of Senate File 519, which creates a criminal trespassing offense.

The bill passed this week in the Iowa Senate and House would enforce criminal penalties for a person who deceptively obtains access to, or employment at, an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public with the intent to cause physical or economic harm to the facility. The bill also provides for conspiracy charges for those who conspire to cause harm to our agricultural production facilities or animals.

This valuable piece of legislation is essential for ag producers in our state. It provides protections for producers against tampering with their livestock and farming operations and the potentially devastating spread of disease. 

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