By Nathan Tucker
Iowa’s “merit-based” judicial selection process is no less partisan than any other system. It’s just done behind closed doors.
In 1962, Iowans amended their state constitution to replace judicial elections with the “Missouri Plan” under the promise that it would remove politics from the judiciary. Evidence from voting records and campaign contributions reveal that the effort has failed miserably in Iowa and in other states that also adopted the Missouri Plan.
Under the current “merit-based” selection system, nominating commissions interview applicants for vacant positions and then forward to the governor two (or, in the case of appellate vacancies, three) names from which the governor then selects one to fill the position.
There is a single state nominating commission to review applicants for a position on either the Iowa Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, and each judicial district has its own nominating commission for trial judges.
Far from removing politics from the process, however, it has led to the domination by one political party — the Democrats — of the state’s judiciary.
Of the five sitting Iowa Supreme Court justices appointed under Democratic governors, all of them are registered Democrats (or were, becoming Independents after assuming the bench). Three of these five justices gave a combined total of $177,690 to the Iowa Democratic Party and Democratic candidates.
Of the seven judges on the Iowa Court of Appeals appointed by Democratic governors, all but one are/were registered Democrats. Two of these six judges also contributed to Democratic candidates.
Of 83 trial judges appointed since 1999 when Gov. Tom Vilsack began his first term, 53 of them are/were Democrats while only 18 are/were registered Republicans.
These numbers are the result not only of Democratic governors but of Democratic-dominated nominating commissions. The state nominating commission, which reviews applicants for vacancies on the state’s appellate courts, is made up of 14 members, seven selected by the governor and the remaining seven are attorneys elected by their colleagues.
Of the seven commission members appointed by Democratic governors, all seven, unsurprisingly, are Democrats.
Of the seven elected attorneys, one is an Independent and two are Republicans (though one of these Republicans gave a total of $10,500 to Democratic candidates). The other four are Democrats who contributed a total of $19,575 to Democratic candidates.
The same Democratic domination continues in the district (trial court) nominating commissions, each of which is made up of 10 members — five appointed by the governor and five attorneys elected by their peers. Of the 139 current district commission members, 93 are Democrats while only 18 are Republicans.
These results are duplicated in both Tennessee and Missouri.
It is time to stop glorifying Iowa’s judicial nomination system as nonpartisan and recognize it for what it clearly is: the dominance of the Democratic Party behind closed doors.
The solution isn’t judicial elections which compromise judicial integrity and independence, but rather a nominating process much like that on the federal level that brings it into the open and turns it over to those directly answerable to the people.
While politics cannot be entirely removed from the process, at least it can be made more open and accountable.
Nathan Tucker is a Davenport attorney, author and constitutional expert. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org