DES MOINES — A controversial proposal to reduce the role of lawyers in nominating fellow attorneys to serve as judges passed the Iowa Senate on Tuesday.
The proposal would strip attorneys from the process of nominating Iowans to serve on the panel that recommends judicial candidates to the governor, handing those nominations to leaders in the Iowa Legislature instead.
It passed on a party-line vote with all majority Republicans supporting.
Republicans say attorneys are too influential in the process, the current system does not provide sufficient accountability for commission members and it can be difficult for rural Iowans to be get spots on the nominating commissions.
Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, disputed Democratic allegations the changes are a response to recent Iowa court decisions that struck down abortion restrictions and the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
Julian Garrett, R-Indianola who led the debate, said many conservatives feel there is a pattern of judges striking down laws without constitutional justification.
Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, criticized Republicans for making changes to the system because they disagree with court rulings on hot-button issues.
“It’s arrogant. It’s a power grab,” Bolkcom said during debate on the bill. “You’re drunk on power.”
Under the current process, citizen commissions vet candidates for judicial vacancies. The commissions give a list of finalists to the governor, who makes an appointment. Commission members are appointed: half by the governor and half by a vote of attorneys.
The proposal would remove the attorneys and give those commission appointments to legislative leaders from both parties.
The proposal contains a requirement half of the commission members be attorneys.
The scope of the bill was reduced to apply only to the Iowa Supreme Court and the court of appeals. It leaves mostly intact the current process for the district courts.
The bill makes no changes to the merit retention process, under which Iowa voters determine whether judges remain seated on the bench. That process is written into the state constitution.
The bill now heads to the House, where a similar proposal has been advancing.