More politics is not what Iowa courts need

Harold Hill, that smooth-talking con artist in “The Music Man,” persuaded gullible Iowans that “ya got trouble, my friend, right here in River City.”

He arrived in town to sell band instruments and band uniforms to parents who didn’t know they wanted or needed them. But his first task was to sell parents on the notion that a band was the way to keep their kids from hanging out at the pool hall.

Today, the Harold Hills working our state are not concerned about pool halls or bands. But they are again trying to gin up public anxiety about a supposed problem right here in Iowa – that politics, with a capital P, is tainting our court system, especially the selection of judges.

This time, the sales pitch is not coming from some out-of-town jasper with a pinch-back suit and a knack for whipping a crowd to a frenzy. This time, the pitch is coming from Republican leaders in the Legislature, with help from Gov. Kim Reynolds.

They are talking about changing the way candidates for open seats on Iowa’s state courts are chosen. They want to give the governor even more authority over that process.

This is a big deal, because Iowa has gained national admiration for the nonpartisan judicial selection and retention system that has been used in our state since voters amended the Iowa Constitution in 1962.

Yes, some court decisions have been controversial. Conservatives and liberals alike have been disappointed at one time or another over the outcome in certain cases.

The blood pressure of Democrats and labor leaders spiked when their challenges to some decisions by Gov. Terry Branstad were rejected by the courts.

Republicans were angered when Varnum v. Brien was decided unanimously in 2009 by the Iowa Supreme Court. That case upheld a district court ruling that the state law prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying violated the equal-protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court reached the same conclusion on similar laws around the nation.

For those who worry Iowa’s judges are too political, I would note that the Varnum decision was written by Justice Mark Cady of Fort Dodge, a scholarly gentleman who was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad to be a district judge, then an Iowa Court of Appeals judge and finally, in 1998, to become a justice on the Supreme Court.

Before the 1962 amendment, Iowans elected judges the same way we picked many government officials: at the ballot box. Candidates wanting to be a judge submitted their nomination papers. Then they solicited campaign donations, purchased campaign ads and asked people to vote for them – like traditional politicians do.

After voters approved the system based on merit rather than politics, nonpartisan commissions were established to winnow the applicants for judgeships and forward two or three finalists to the governor, who makes the ultimate selection from that list.

Then, at specified intervals afterward, those judges stand for retention on Election Day, and voters decide whether to keep the person on the bench or remove them. The most visible example of the role voters play was their decision in 2010 to remove three justices who participated in the Varnum decision.

At issue in the current debate is the fact that the State Judicial Nominating Commission and the separate regional commissions in each judicial district are made up of two kinds of members. Half are citizens appointed by the governor; half are lawyers elected by fellow lawyers.

Republicans at the Statehouse are talking about allowing the governor, rather than Iowa’s lawyers, to choose the attorneys who fill half of the seats on the nominating commissions. The Republican belief is that Iowa lawyers are too partisan --- or, more bluntly, that they lean to the left too often.

There is rich irony here.

The selection process established 57 years ago says the political affiliations of the nominating commission members are not to be considered when they are chosen. Last year, however, in a stunning coincidence, Governor Reynolds appointed 25 people to the district nominating commissions, and 23 of those appointees turned out to be registered Republicans, two are independents and none were registered Democrats.

In fairness, Reynolds did not invent this inherent inequity. Democrats and other Republicans behaved the same way when they held the governor’s office, too.

In contrast, state law now prevents a governor from making appointments to most other state boards and commissions so one party occupies more than half of the seats, plus one, on any board.

But the change Republicans are talking about making in the process for choosing lawyers for the judicial commissions would, ultimately, permit the governor to appoint all members of these commissions from one party.

Is that really how you make the judicial selections less partisan? Even Harold Hill would have trouble selling the changes Republicans are considering.

He was right when he told the River City townspeople, “Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!”

* * *
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

Go to top