By Frank Carroll
A significant debate has started over whether three Iowa Supreme Court justices should be retained in this November’s election.
Should citizens be concerned? Absolutely!
Iowa’s reputation as having one of the fairest and most impartial court systems in the country has been affirmed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, Iowa is starting down a path that is introducing special interests and campaign donations into our judicial retention process for the first time in the half century that Iowa has had its merit system.
With special interests and campaign donations introduced into the system, the perception, if not the reality, of the impartiality of the judiciary will be in jeopardy.
Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist Paper No. 78, articulated the importance of maintaining a judiciary free from the pressures of the political process. A citizen’s rights to justice should not change because the opposing party is politically influential or the opposing attorney has made a large contribution to the judge’s re-election campaign. Such an approach undermines the rule of law and a democracy.
Jobs and economic development are also at stake. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks the state courts because the courts have a major impact on their businesses. It is noteworthy that almost all of the highest-rated states have a merit selection process, while the lowest-rated states all have wide-open judicial elections.
With a difficult economic climate, do we really want to risk one of Iowa’s strengths by introducing politics into our courts?
And one only has to look at a state that has traditional political campaigns to understand why their courts are rated so poorly.
A recently released report by the Brennan Center for Justice noted that spending on judicial campaigns has skyrocketed over the last decade to a total of $206 million over the most recent 10-year period. It shows that the vast bulk of the dollars are not from individuals, but rather from special interest contributors.
A retention election such as Iowa’s is an important part of our judicial selection process. It holds judges accountable to ensure they have the right intellect, skills or temperament and work ethic. It is not designed to punish judges who issue a decision or decisions that are unpopular with a segment of society.
Our merit selection process has proved to work well in helping deliver high-quality judges. However, the retention process serves as an important check.
As Ronald Reagan appointee, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in the forward to the Brennan report, “the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold.”
What can citizens do to prevent this politicization of the courts?
First, make sure that you vote on the retention questions on your ballot. Second, hold as suspect any mailings or campaign ads telling you how to vote. Third, learn about the judges up for retention in your own county and make your own independent decisions.
There are 74 judges on the ballot this fall and it is critical that well-qualified judges not be randomly defeated.
How do you know which are well qualified? There are several ways to learn about these judges.
The Iowa State Bar Association conducts a survey of attorneys that have practiced before these judges and the results of the survey will be published in October at www.iowabar.org
The judicial website, www.iowacourts.gov has biographical information on the judges. You can also visit www.learniowacourts.org
Though everyone may not always agree with a court’s decisions, we can all do our part to ensure the Iowa courts remain among the best in the country.
Frank Carroll is president of The Iowa State Bar Association, which serves 8,000 attorneys licensed to practice law in the state. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org