Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bruce Zager will retire effective September 3, he announced late last week. By leaving the bench at the start of the high court’s 2018/2019 term, Zager guarantees that Governor Kim Reynolds will select his successor, regardless of who wins the November election.
The Iowa Supreme Court is in its eighth year without a vacancy, an unusually long period of no turnover. Zager was one of the three judges Governor Terry Branstad named to the high court in early 2011, after Iowans voted not to retain three justices in November 2010.
In non-unanimous Supreme Court rulings, Zager has often been part of a conservative bloc, along with Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman, fellow 2011 Branstad appointees. Justices David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht, and Brent Appel are typically on the opposite side, with Chief Justice Mark Cady determining the outcome in many high-profile cases.
In the news release enclosed below, Zager didn’t explain why he is stepping down this year. Once his retirement is official,
The secretary of state will notify the nominating commission chair of a vacancy on the supreme court. Within 10 days of receiving a vacancy notice, the chair will call an initial commission meeting and determine the timelines and procedures for accepting applications.
Within 60 days of receiving a notice of a judicial vacancy on the supreme court from the secretary of state, the commission must submit the names of three nominees to the governor. The governor has 30 days to fill the vacancy from the list of nominees submitted by the commission.
That timeline will allow Reynolds to choose a justice from the short list sometime in December, when she will be either a lame duck or preparing for a full four-year term as governor. UPDATE/CORRECTION: They started the process after Zager announced his planned retirement, rather than waiting until he had stepped down. On June 27 the judicial branch published names and applications for the 22 people who are seeking to replace Zager. Consequently, the nominating commission will select the short list sometime this summer.
Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins chairs the State Judicial Nominating Commission, which has eight members elected by the State Bar Association and eight appointed by the governor.
Unlike most state boards, judicial nominating commissions are not subject to Iowa’s partisan balance rules. (The usual gender balance rules for Iowa boards do apply.) All eight appointed State Judicial Nominating Commission members–six picked by Branstad in 2014 and 2016, two by Reynolds this year–are registered Republicans. Last week Reynolds named 25 people to regional judicial nominating commissions: 23 registered Republicans and two no-party voters.
One of those new appointees was the governor’s own father. The May 1 press release did not identify Charles Strawn as a relative of Reynolds, but Ryan Foley of the Associated Press noticed the connection.
[The governor’s press secretary Brenna] Smith said Strawn was one of three applicants for two openings on the District 5A commission, which vets judicial candidates in Dallas, Warren and four other central Iowa counties that have a combined population of 234,000.
She said that Reynolds appointed Strawn and longtime GOP activist Marlys Popma of Kellogg; the third applicant lived in a county already represented on the panel and wasn’t eligible.
Strawn will serve a six-year unpaid term, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation. The District 5A commission will meet May 17 to interview candidates seeking to replace retired District Judge Paul Huscher of Waukee, who served two decades on the bench.
“I was invited to serve on this board and would like to serve in order to repay to society for the great life and benefits I have enjoyed,” Strawn wrote in his April 13 application to the governor’s office, obtained Tuesday by AP. He said that he had retired in 1989 after working for 30 years at John Deere’s Ankeny factory following his graduation from high school.
Smith said that the governor’s director of boards and commissions “reached out to Mr. Strawn about the opening.”
It was sheer arrogance, not to mention “brash nepotism,” for Reynolds to name her father to this position, especially without disclosing the relationship. Members of district judicial nominating commissions need not have any qualification beyond being an “eligible elector” living in the area. Nevertheless, the governor could have found someone outside her family to serve on the panel.
Iowa’s merit-based system for selecting judges provides some checks on the governor, in contrast to a system that gives the governor a free hand in naming judges. Reynolds appears to have rigged the process to make sure the judicial nominating commission for District 5A will put the person she wants on the short list to replace Judge Huscher.
Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.
UPDATE: Reynolds said on May 15 that her father was “just like” many other gubernatorial appointees, Foley reported for the AP.
Speaking to reporters after an event in Davenport on Tuesday, the governor said her father was a retired factory worker for John Deere and farmer.
“This is an individual that loves the state and wanted to volunteer and give back, just like hundreds of other Iowans that we appoint to boards and commissions,” she said. “That’s a simple fact.”
Reynolds added that her dad had coached Little League baseball teams and been involved in county government.
Iowa Supreme Court news release:
Des Moines, Iowa, May 4, 2018—Today, Iowa Supreme Court Justice Bruce B. Zager, Waterloo, announced his retirement effective September 3, 2018. Justice Zager’s judicial career spans 19 years, including 12 years on the district court bench. He began serving on the supreme court March 23, 2011.
“It has been my distinct honor and privilege to serve as the 110th justice in the 180 year history of the Iowa Supreme Court,” Justice Zager said. “Under the exceptional leadership of Chief Justice Mark Cady, it has been particularly rewarding to be a part of a court system recognized as one of the best in the nation. I also want to acknowledge my colleagues on the court for their unfailing commitment to justice, and their genuine kindness and respect that they have shown me during my time on the court. Finally, I want to thank all of the employees of the judicial branch that I have had the privilege of working with over the many years. It is due to your tireless efforts that we have a court system that ensures justice for all.”
Justice Zager was born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa. He earned his Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Iowa in 1975, his Master of Science degree in Industrial Relations from Loyola University of Chicago in 1977, and his law degree from Drake University Law School in 1980. Justice Zager was in private practice in Waterloo from 1981 to 1999, and was a member of the Black Hawk County Attorney’s Office from 1987 until his appointment to the Iowa District Court in 1999. He is married with three children and four grandchildren.
“Justice Zager has been a very important part of the supreme court and he will be missed both as a clear-thinking, deliberative judge and as a good friend,” Chief Justice Mark Cady said. “As justices, we are responsible for the administration of the statewide judicial system and rulemaking. Justice Zager has played an essential part of providing justice to all Iowans by serving on the Iowa Supreme Court Public Outreach Steering Committee, the Committee on Expanded Media Coverage, and the Guardianship and Conservatorship Reform Task Force.”
Under Iowa law, the vacancy that will occur upon Justice Zager’s retirement will be filled by appointment by the Governor from a list of three nominees, which will be submitted by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. For more information on the supreme court judicial nominating process, go to Judicial Vacancies.