Iowa's system for choosing judges isn't broken

2010-09-12T00:00:00Z 2010-10-27T22:12:13Z Iowa's system for choosing judges isn't broken Sioux City Journal
September 12, 2010 12:00 am

If it isn't broken, don't fix it. That well-known, wise adage describes in simple terms our position on efforts to change how judges are chosen in Iowa.

Let's be honest. Iowans are talking about judges this year for one reason: Division over a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. If that ruling from the High Court had gone the other way, we doubt we would be holding this argument.

The central question Iowans should ask themselves during this discussion is: Do we want to throw out the fair, effective manner in which judges in our state have been selected for the last half century because of a single court decision?

In our view, the answer is "no." Even those who oppose the 2009 gay marriage decision should still appreciate and advocate for the integrity of Iowa's judicial system protected by the structure under which judges are named today.

Here's how the current process works: A nominating commission made up of 15 individuals (seven members nominated by the state legal bar, seven members selected by the governor who serve staggered terms and are subject to Senate confirmation, with the last position filled by the most senior Supreme Court justice who is not the chief justice) presents the governor with a list of names to consider for open positions on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals and in district courts. Judges who are appointed by the governor then stand for periodic retention votes.

In other words, checks and balances exist, political partisanship (with all of its inherent ugly baggage) is minimized, the judicial independence so crucial to the fairness of any court system is preserved in Iowa.

Although we do not support a wholesale overhaul of the process, we would not oppose one tweak: Change the rules for how nominating commission members are chosen to require an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

On a related front, we find troubling the crusade - led by defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats - to remove from the bench Iowa Supreme Court justices Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit, who face retention votes in November. We are concerned this kind of organized campaign to drive out judges as political retaliation for a ruling (again, the 2009 gay marriage decision) may establish an unsettling precedent for a future in this state in which the infusion of political ideology routinely will force judges to raise money and run political campaigns to win retention.

We subscribe to a much narrower interpretation of the reason for holding retention elections. Judges should be removed not because of a court decision, but because they have clearly proven to be unfit for service on the bench.

Our state enjoys a positive national reputation for the strength of its courts and the judges who run them. As Iowans, we should resist the calls of those who would have us believe otherwise.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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