Gov. Branstad names 3 to Iowa Supreme Court

2011-02-23T14:17:00Z 2011-02-23T16:30:10Z Gov. Branstad names 3 to Iowa Supreme Court By Rod Boshart, Journal Des Moines Bureau Sioux City Journal
February 23, 2011 2:17 pm  • 

DES MOINES -- Gov. Terry Branstad's three appointments to the Iowa Supreme Court should usher in a return to stability and order following a tumultuous and historic retention election that shook the court to its foundation, officials said Wednesday.

Branstad's decision to name Edward Mansfield, 53, of Des Moines, Thomas Waterman, 51, of Pleasant Valley, and Bruce Zager, 58, of Waterloo, to serve on the state's top court marks "the end of a long road" that began Nov. 2, said state court administrator David Boyd.

"I think the Judicial Branch as a whole and the court specifically has been going through somewhat of a grieving process since November and I think that the court is very anxious to have the three new members there so they'll be at full strength and they can get back to doing their job in a more orderly fashion," Boyd said. "I think there's a certain sense that ... the uncertainty is now taken away."

In makes his choices, Branstad tapped two current members of the judiciary and a private attorney. Mansfield currently sits on the Iowa Court of Appeals, Waterman is a private attorney with the Lane & Waterman law firm, and Zager is a district court judge in Iowa's 1st judicial district.

The trio will fill vacancies created when former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Associate Justices Michael Streit and David Baker were defeated in retention votes last November. Their terms ended last Dec. 31.

"My goal was to choose Supreme Court justices, from the available slate of candidates, who are most likely to faithfully interpret the laws and Constitution, and respect the separation of powers," Branstad said in a statement.

The three new justices bring a mixture of private practice experience and court knowledge to the Supreme Court.

Iowa Supreme Court interim chief justice Mark Cady welcomed the three appointments.

"My colleagues and I are pleased with the governor's appointments to the court," he said in a statement released by the Judicial Branch. "The three appointees possess the qualities essential for judicial office: integrity, keen intellect, solid legal experience, and most important, respect for fair and impartial justice -- the hallmark of Iowa's court system."

He thanked the members of the State Judicial Nominating Commission, who screened the applicants, "for their continued commitment to the principles of merit selection, and for sending the governor a slate of nine, high-caliber nominees."

The State Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed 60 applicants before forwarding Branstad a slate of nine nominees on Jan. 27.

The governor conducted individual interviews with the prospective justices before announcing his choices. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Chief of Staff Jeff Boeyink and legal counsel Brenna Findley also participated in the interviews, he said.

Boyd said the three new appointees have 10 days to file their oaths of office with the Iowa Secretary of State's Office. Their terms will begin sometime in the next 30 days.

"I would hope that certainly by the first of April that we're up to full strength," the state court administrator said. "Actually, I suspect at least two out of the three will be there in March."

Boyd said it likely will take several months for the court to return to a normal work flow.

Separate nominating commissions now will have to start the process of picking candidates to replace Mansfield and Zager.

The three new justices will face a retention vote in November 2012, along with current Associate Justice David Wiggins. If retained, they won't face the voters again for eight years.

Last November marked the first time in Iowa history that three Supreme Court justices were voted out en masse - a public backlash to a unanimous April 2009 decision that declared a state law defining marriage as only between one man and one woman unconstitutional. The controversial decision gave a legal basis for couples of the same gender to be married in civil ceremonies in Iowa and touched off a political firestorm that still rages.

Senate GOP Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton praised Branstad for doing a very thorough job of evaluating the nine candidates he received from the nominating panel and said "on the surface it appears that he made very good choices" while reserving final judgment until his staff had finished a review.

However, McKinley said Wednesday's action did not life a cloud over the court's action.

"I think that if we want that cloud to dissipate, (Senate Majority Leader) Mike Gronstal should allow a debate on the Iowa marriage amendment, which would defuse that entire issue. I believe those three justices who were thrown out would still be on the court had Mike Gronstal allowed that bill to be debated."

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, the Legislature's only openly gay member, said he was disappointed that Branstad passed over Angela Onwuachi-Willig, 37, of Grinnell, the only woman of 11 female applicants who was nominated

"I'm disappointed that there wasn't some kind of gender balance made," he said.

McCoy said he hoped that returning the Iowa Supreme Court to its full strength of seven members would close a difficult chapter in the state's history.

"I hope that Iowans recognize how disruptive taking individuals off the courts are and when this issue is brought to voters again, as I'm sure it will be," McCoy said. "I hope that voters will remember this period of instability that was caused and look at a person's entire judicial record when making a decision."

Sen. Kent Sorenson, R-Indianola, said it was too early for his to assess Branstad's choices, but continued to believe the governor show have more authority in directly selecting who he would appoint to the bench.

"I think the system's broke. I think that we should re-evaluate how we appoint justices," he said. "I've said before that 36 other states have direct election of judges. I put in a bill for that. I understand that Iowa may not be ready for that, so I would support the governor having full authority to pick with confirmation through the Senate and the retention vote on top of that."

Former Iowa Lt. Govs. Sally Pederson and Joy Corning, co-chairs of the Justice Not Politics organization, issued a joint statement praised Branstad's announcement as an example of "Iowa's top-ranked" system of selecting judges at work.

"We appreciate the Governor's recognition of the merit selection system and his faithful execution of the process.

"Justice Not Politics believes the increased transparency of selecting the justices helps to give Iowans more confidence in the process and the candidates, and we are confident Iowans will reject any attempts to politicize this process in the future," they said.

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