CEDAR RAPIDS — Eight state lawmakers and a former colleague are suing to block implementation of changes the Legislature made in the final hours of the 2019 session to Iowa’s 57-year-old judicial nominating procedure.
“This shady deal” to give Gov. Kim Reynolds the majority of appointments to the commission that nominates finalists for openings on the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals “ignored the constitution and our merit-based system for selection of judges,” said lawyer and former Democratic legislator Bob Rush of Cedar Rapids.
Republican lawmakers “cut a backroom deal to put politics back into the selection of judges” for the Iowa Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, Rush said.
Rush and Reps. Art Staed and Liz Bennett of Cedar Rapids, Mary Mascher of Iowa City, Brian Meyer, Jo Oldson and Rick Olson of Des Moines, Mark Smith of Marshalltown and Mary Wolfe of Clinton — all Democrats — are challenging the law, Senate File 638, on three counts.
They are asking the Polk County District Court for a temporary injunction to prevent the implementation of the portions of the law dealing with judicial nominating, and a permanent injunction barring the enforcement and use of those changes.
First, they allege the bill violates rules against “logrolling,” which is the inclusion of unrelated matters in one bill. The Iowa Constitution requires legislation to “embrace but one subject, and matters properly connected therewith.”
The plaintiffs also challenge SF 638 for failure to meet the constitutional requirement that the title of a bill contain the subject matter to “prevent fraud and surprise.” There is no mention of the judicial nominating commission in the title.
“It’s pretty fuzzy,” Rush said.
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Finally, the plaintiffs call the portion of SF 638 dealing with judicial nominating procedures a violation of the constitutional establishment of coequal branches of government because it changes the selection and term of office for the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The Legislature directed the court to elect a chief justice every two years.
The term and selection of the chief justice is a matter for the court, not the Legislature, to decide, Rush said.
Underlying the lawsuit — and the unsuccessful legislative opposition to the changes approved on the final day of the session — is the concern lawmakers are reintroducing politics into the process.
Since Iowans approved a constitutional amendment to have judges nominated by panels made up of equal numbers of members selected by the Iowa bar and the governor, and one member from the state Supreme Court, politics have not influenced the process, Rush said.
“Iowa has been at the top of the class, a model for the other 49 states to look up to on our merit-based selection process,” Rush said. “Politics are not involved, haven’t been involved since that constitutional change to get us away from electing judges on a partisan, political basis.”
He believes the majority of Iowans like and support a system that keeps politics out.
Giving the governor nine appointees to the commission to the bar’s eight “throws politics back into the selection process,” according to Rush. While the appointees don’t necessarily vote as blocs when selecting finalists for the governor to choose from, the governor’s ninth appointee or “tiebreaker” owes their allegiance to the governor, he said.
Reynolds’ ninth appointee, Pella lawyer Dan Huitink, who was named since she signed SF 638, is named separately in the lawsuit.