Battle brewing over Iowa Supreme Court nominations

Judicial nominating commissions will soon begin evaluating possible replacements for Iowa Supreme Court Justices Marsha Ternus, Michael Streit and David Baker. The law gives the commissions 60 days to submit a short list of candidates for judgeships to the governor, which means soon to be former Governor Chet Culver could nominate justices before Governor-elect Terry Branstad is sworn in. Branstad said yesterday that he should appoint the new members of the high court:

“I think it would be inappropriate to have a governor that was just rejected by the voters try to rush through appointments to a court when the court was just rejected as well. I think we need to really sit down and think this thing through in a really careful way,” Branstad says. “But really my focus is on jobs. That’s why the people of Iowa elected me as governor and that’s where I’m going to put my focus in the days ahead.”

Culver has not promised to let Branstad appoint the new justices. A November 3 statement from the governor’s office said only this:

“I am reviewing the matter carefully to ensure the judicial selection process that is utilized now is consistent with the Iowa Constitution, with Iowa law, and with past practices used in the course of both Democratic and Republican administrations in instances when multiple vacancies in our appellate courts have been created simultaneously.”

Meanwhile, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn says it would be “unconscionable” for Culver “to thumb your finger in the eyes of the voters who just repudiated those Supreme Court Justices and, quite frankly, repudiated you and the one party, Democrat rule in Des Moines.” Strawn also called for “a further discussion too on how we change the way judges are nominated and selected in this state as well, because I think that too is part of the problem.” Getting rid of Iowa’s judicial nominating commissions would require a constitutional amendment, but a new law could make minor changes. For instance, Branstad has endorsed efforts to require partisan balance on the judicial nominating commissions.

The Supreme Court has already heard some oral arguments in this year’s caseload. It’s not clear whether the four remaining justices will issue rulings on those cases or rehear the oral arguments once replacements for Ternus, Streit and Baker have been selected.

The November 4 edition of the Des Moines Register published a map showing the judicial retention vote by Iowa county. There was a strong urban/rural split in the voting. In seven counties, more than 70 percent of votes cast on retention said no to all three judges. In 48 counties, the no votes on retention totaled between 60 and 70 percent. In 34 counties, the no votes totaled between 50 and 60 percent. In Clinton County, Streit and Ternus received a majority of votes for retention, but the yes votes for Baker fell below 50 percent. All three judges received a majority of yes votes in the remaining nine counties: Winneshiek (Decorah area), Black Hawk (Waterloo/Cedar Falls), Story (Ames), Polk (Des Moines), Linn (Cedar Rapids), Johnson (Iowa City), Muscatine, Scott (Quad Cities), and Jefferson (Fairfield area). I will update this post with a link to the map if I find it on the Register’s website.

UPDATE: Thanks to Bleeding Heartland user ragbrai08 for posting the map in the comments below. I’ve posted it after the jump as well.

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  • Use the system we have!

    When Republicans lose, they fight back.  When Democrats lose, they try to compromise.

    Republicans misused the judicial recall vote because they could not prevail via the legislature.  Now we should use the system as is to blunt the effectiveness of the Republican attack.  Next time they try it on new judges (four more to go!), voters will remember that Culver “didn’t let it work” and will be less likely to oust them.

    • one wrinkle is

      There’s no guarantee a slate of nominees will go to Culver in time. If the nominating commission takes the whole 60 days, Branstad will already have been inaugurated.

      • Don't be complicit

        If the commission uses its full time, it creates a precedent that will encourage ousting future judges as part of every campaign so as to get the new governor to appoint new ones.

        If the commission expedites its work and Culver appoints new judges, the plan to politicize the judiciary will be frustrated.  It won’t work to oust judges every cycle.

        If they delay or even use all due deliberation, they are complicit in the coming politicization of Iowa judgeships.

        • I agree with you

          if Culver gets the list before he leaves office, he should appoint the new judges.

          The only downside to that is the conservatives can run another “vote no on everyone” retention campaign in 2012. If Branstad appoints three judges, then they’ll have to tell people to vote no on Wiggins (the only current Supreme Court justice who will be up for retention in 2012) but yes on the others. That’s a more difficult message to sell with voters.

          If the judicial nominating commission takes its time, that doesn’t mean Branstad will necessarily be able to appoint conservative judges. We don’t know who will end up on the short list he has to choose from.

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