Jaimes: Is revamping the judicial process in Iowa just partisan politics? Not really.

New plans to modify the judicial selection process in Iowa is not as alarming as many have made it seem.



Male judge in a courtroom striking the gavel (Dreamstime/TNS)

Marina Jaimes, Opinions Columnist

On Monday, a proposal to modify the merit-based judicial selection system in Iowa was introduced by Republican legislators.

The new plan aims to give accountability back to the voters by allowing only the governor and lawmakers to choose who sits on the state Judicial Nominating Commission.

As described in the Des Moines Register, the bill “would give Iowa Republicans — who currently control the House, Senate and governor’s office — almost total control immediately over how Iowa judges are picked.”

Is the Republican trifecta really politicizing courts this blatantly? Not at all, and it should not be painted in such a light as many  Democratic legislators are making it appear.

The merit-based system used in Iowa means that judges are initially selected by a commission consisting of 17 people, with one of those being a senior member of the state Supreme Court who is not the chief justice. The commission then sends its selections to the governor for the final stamp of approval.

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Currently, eight members are chosen by the governor, and the other eight are attorneys elected by other Iowa attorneys, meaning unelected officials have harnessed the power to elect half of the members of the commission.

After judges are selected, they serve until they face a retention election — in which they are almost always voted back into office. Only four judges in Iowa’s history have ever lost retention elections.

The bill still needs a lot of work. If improvements are to be made on it, they should only be done using what is true of the bill and not painting it as a court-packing nightmare out of FDR’s handbook.

Republicans advocating for a modification to the merit-based system cited that they strive for accountability in the judicial-selection process, and accountability has not been a strong suit of the merit-based Missouri Plan.

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When I first read this news, I wasn’t quick to defend  Republican legislators, who have been in many public battles with the courts in recent months. What sparked my interest was the merit-based system itself, a topic covered extensively in the courses I’ve taken as a political-science major at the University of Iowa.

Iowa’s new plan includes eight members picked by the governor and another eight members chosen by majority and minority leaders in both houses of the Legislature, meaning only elected officials choose who makes up the Judicial Nominating Commission. This allows voters to have somewhat of an input in this process.

States are given the option to select their judges either through partisan or nonpartisan elections, appointments, or the Missouri Plan, which Iowa uses. All but the last option directly gives voice to voters’ opinions. They may be the best way to hold judges accountable, but it heavily involves politics.

Like previously mentioned, the merit-based Missouri Plan only holds judges accountable during retention elections. Because voters are only asked to vote “yes” or “no” on the competency of a judge, many judges receive a majority of “yes” votes and are hardly ever removed from their positions.

If Iowa Republicans believe that both Republican and Democratic leaders of Legislature selecting members of the Judicial Nominating Commission will increase accountability while still using a merit-based plan, then they’re taking steps in the right direction to do so. But to publicize them as taking total control over the judiciary is false.

The bill still needs a lot of work. If improvements are to be made on it, they should only be done using what is true of the bill and not painting it as a court-packing nightmare out of FDR’s handbook.