DES MOINES — When it comes to a proposal to change the way Iowa’s Supreme Court justices are chosen, a legislative forum held last week in Des Moines underscored Republicans and Democrats have a fundamental disagreement about whether there’s even a problem that needs fixing.
At issue is an idea to evaluate and potentially change the state’s 17-member nominating commission that is made up of appointments by the governor and Iowa attorneys. Proponents say the system could use tweaks to give the public more input on the process. Critics, meanwhile, argue that Iowa has a model system, saying changes would inject politics into a process that has long remained free of overbearing partisan influence.
Describing the reasoning behind a review of the process, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver on Thursday pointed to what he describes as “dozens and dozens of activist rulings” from the state’s supreme court, saying lawmakers want to “curb some of that” legislatively.
“Over the last 20 years, there’s been more and more judicial activism where the supreme court justices are trying to legislate from the bench,” Whitver, an Ankeny Republican, said. “(If) they want to be legislators, run for the legislature. Otherwise they should be interpreting the laws and the constitution that we’ve given them.”
On the other end of that argument was Minority Leader Todd Pritchard, leader of the Senate Democrats. He questioned “what problem we are trying to fix,” calling accusations of judicial activism “unfounded.”
“The worst thing that we can do is politicize our judiciary … I think this is a slippery slope and an issue that’s not really a problem. We have a merit-based system in Iowa. We need to maintain and defend that system,” Pritchard said.
The discord between leaders of state’s two major political parties highlights one of several fights likely to come out of the next legislative session once lawmakers begin on Monday. For judicial nominations, no specific legislative proposals have been outlined, but Republicans say they are focusing on ways to make changes without triggering a requirement to amend the state constitution.
Iowa’s 17-member judicial nominating commission is made up of eight lawyers elected by licensed peers, eight members of the public appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Iowa Senate and a chair who is the most senior member of the Iowa Supreme Court who is not the chief justice. Whitver, the Senate Majority Leader, said the intention is to evaluate the commission’s makeup and perhaps make changes that would ensure the general public has more of a say in the selections by possibly altering the requirement concerning attorneys.
Some critics have also questioned whether changing the process for judicial nominations would consolidate greater power under Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. Reynolds, who has said she supports reviewing the commission’s makeup, said Thursday that some may think “maybe the process right now is political” and “we want to make sure that the process is fair.”
“The issue is to not make it political, make sure that it’s fair and that we have equal representation,” she added.
As the gubernatorial campaign between Reynolds and Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell was in full swing last year, potential changes to the state’s public employee pensions became a hotly debated political issue.
Now, as lawmakers head into session, Republicans say there’s no plan to make changes to the system whatsoever. Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, chair of the committee through which such legislation would need to pass, said “there never was a plan” to change the system, calling that message a “manufactured scare tactic.”
“It unequivocally will not happen,” Kaufmann said, noting that House Speaker Upmeyer has also taken the same position.
In the wake of several sexual harassment allegations, including in the Senate Republican caucus, the Iowa Finance Authority and against Sen. Nate Boulton (the alleged incidents occurred in 2015, before Boulton was elected), state lawmakers in 2018 created a new position of human resources director to handle complaints in the Capitol, updated sexual harassment policies and bolstered training for all legislators and staff.
“Last session we took deliberate action, meeting with experts, changing our rules, hiring the HR director to make sure that we have a better work environment here in the Iowa Capitol. And I think those steps have produced results already,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny. “But we’re going to have to always continue to monitor our work environment here to make sure that it’s conducive for all employees.”
Legislative leaders said they do not expect any legislation on legislation in the 2019 session, but Senate Democratic leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said her caucus may introduce a bill that would address sexual harassment in the workplace outside the Capitol. Petersen said details on the proposal are not yet available.
Whitver insisted majority Republicans have no plans to change Iowa’s redistricting process ahead of the 2020 U.S. Census. The census will inform the legislative process of redrawing Iowa’s political boundaries for the next 10 years.
Lawmakers in some states have wide authority to draw their own political boundaries. In Iowa, lawmakers vote only on proposals drafted by the state’s nonpartisan legal services agency.
“The only people talking about (Republicans possibly) changing that are liberal bloggers,” Whitver said. “(There have been) zero conversations in our caucus in changing redistricting, period. Right now I think the system works fine. Unless there’s evidence that says there’s a problem, I don’t see the need to.”
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said House Republicans are content with the state’s medical cannabis program as is, and have no plans to entertain legislation to make any changes. The newly expanded program allowed for cannabidiol to be produced and sold in Iowa, and expanded the number of ailments for which the product can be used to treat.
Advocates for further expansion say the cap on cannabidiol’s THC content should be raised to make it more useful for those with debilitating conditions.
The new program also created an advisory board that could make such a recommendation to state legislators. The board is considering a petition to raise the law’s THC limit.
“The rules that they write really give them a lot of opportunity to do the expansion that (the advisory board members), as professionals, feel is appropriate,” Upmeyer said. “So I think we’re pretty comfortable with having that advisory board do its work and bring forward what they think is the right way to go on this topic.”
The Iowa Supreme Court in 2018 ruled the state transportation department cannot regulate traffic cameras without legislative approval.
That placed the controversial issue of traffic camera regulations back at the Legislature’s feet.
Whitver said he expects there will be bills regulating or banning traffic cameras, but that the issue was not discussed in Senate Republicans’ first group meeting after the election.