Lawmakers sense 'disconnect' between Iowans, their courts

James Q. Lynch
Published: February 9 2010 | 4:28 pm - Updated: 30 March 2014 | 7:01 pm in
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By James Q. Lynch 

The Gazette


DES MOINES – A pair of proposals to change the structure of the Iowa Supreme Court spring from their sponsors sense there is a disconnect between Iowans and their court.

 “When I do forums, I hear people wondering ‘Who are these people?’” Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll, said. His proposal, House Joint Resolution 2012, calls for appointing nine justices – one from each judicial district and one at-large. It would require justices to continue to live in the district as long as they sit on the court.

“Even people in the legal profession tell me this would help the court get connected at the grass roots level,” he said.

Rep. Kent Sorenson, R-Indianola, would go further. HJR 2013 calls for direct election of the justices.

“People are frustrated with the justices not answering to the people,” Sorenson said.

Both lawmakers say there’s more to their suggestions than opposition to the Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage last April.

“It goes beyond the marriage decision,” Roberts said. “People feel government I not responsive to the people – all branches of government.”

Sorenson is concerned with judge legislating from the bench. “It’s not just same-sex marriage -- it’s guns, property rights and other things,” he said.

Being minority party members, neither Roberts nor Sorenson see much future for their proposals.

“It’s a conversation starter,” said Roberts, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

“I offered this as a statement,” Sorenson said. “I believe it reflects what the people want.”

It’s not what the Iowa Bar Association wants, especially the direct election of judges.

“We’re on the merit system,” bar lobbyist Jim Carney said. “States that elect justices have unbelievable problems.”

The bar doesn’t look favorably on geographic balance either.

“We want the best candidate wherever they are in the state without restrictions,” Carney said.

That sentiment was echoed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Curt Swaim, D-Bloomfield, and David Boyd, court administrator for the Judicial Branch.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘ill-advised,’” Boyd said of the proposals. The public is involved in the selection of justices, he said. Nominees for the court are recommended by panel of attorneys and lay citizens and the governor makes the appointment. Justices stand for retention, their names appearing on the ballot every eight years.

“The court is the guardian of our rights and should be above the political fray,” Swaim said.

He understands the public may feel frustrated with the court at times.

“I understand that sentiment. I feel a disconnect with the court every time they disagree with me,” Swaim said.


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