Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

A Fight for Better Courts in Iowa

(Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

Those of us who care about the rule of law have long seen Iowa’s courts as a disaster. Over half a decade ago, I described Iowa’s Supreme Court as “easily one of the most flagrantly activist in the country.” Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.

Judicial selection in Iowa is still dominated by its adherence to the Soros-backed “merit selection” system, in which trial lawyer-controlled bar associations have the ability to stack the state bench with like-minded judges. Although merit selection has long been heralded as a way to depoliticize the courts, the opposite is actually true. An independent study by Vanderbilt Law Professor Brian Fitzpatrick found that picking judges in merit-selection states is every bit as political as it is in non-merit selection states — the only difference is that it results in far more left-wing judges.

Finally, though, there is hope for Iowa’s courts. The Iowa legislature is currently considering HF 503 and SF 237, the latter of which passed out of committee last week and will soon be presented for final passage in the House. Sponsored by Senator Julian Garrett and Representative Steven Holt, and supported by Governor Kim Reynolds, these bills would remove the state bar association’s disproportionate role in selecting members of the state’s appellate judicial-selection commissions, instead giving this role to elected legislative leaders.  While not perfect, passage of these bills would be an important step for Iowa. The result: judges that better reflect all Iowans, instead of just Iowa’s trial lawyers.

Iowa would not be the first state to reform its merit selection system. Other states have blazed this trail in recent years. In 2010, Oklahoma added two members to its judicial nominating commission appointed by legislative leaders, effectively diluting the influence of the state bar association on appointments. More drastically in 2014, over 60 percent of Tennessee voters approved Amendment 2, which dismantled that state’s merit selection system altogether.

While trial lawyer-backed attacks on the bills have come in heavy and fast, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer and Senate leader Jack Whitver have thus far held strong and appear to be committed to finally, at long last bringing badly needed court reform to Iowa. Here’s to hoping that they are successful.

Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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