Why Matthew McDermott will likely be Iowa's next Supreme Court justice

UPDATE: Reynolds didn’t pick McDermott this time but appointed him to the Iowa Supreme Court in April 2020. Bleeding Heartland covered highlights from his application and interview here.

After interviewing twelve applicants, the State Judicial Nominating Commission forwarded three names to Governor Kim Reynolds on January 9 to fill the vacancy created by Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady’s passing in November.  Reynolds has 30 days to appoint one of the finalists, but there’s no suspense here: she will almost certainly choose Matthew McDermott.

A computer program couldn’t generate a more ideal judicial candidate for a Republican governor seeking to move Iowa courts to the right.

I mean no disrespect to the other highly-qualified candidates the nominating commission recommended. Joel Barrows has been a District Court judge since 2012 and previously worked for more than a decade as an assistant U.S. attorney. Dana Oxley was a career clerk for U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Hansen, helping to research and draft opinions on a wide range of issues, before joining a Cedar Rapids law firm, where she has argued cases in the Iowa Supreme Court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Reynolds will interview and go through the motions of considering all the finalists, but it’s difficult to believe she could pass up the chance to appoint someone with McDermott’s background.

As a longtime litigator and partner in a Des Moines law firm, he has argued many cases in appellate courts, including some politically charged ones. McDermott was the lead counsel defending Iowa’s 2017 collective bargaining law on behalf of the state after Attorney General Tom Miller recused himself. In 4-3 opinions, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality, which unions representing public employees had challenged. (Chief Justice Cady was among the dissenters.)

Last year, McDermott represented Republican State Representative Michael Bergan in the Iowa House district 55 election contest. Bergan led by nine votes according to certified results, but 29 valid absentee ballots in Winnishiek County were never counted.

Appearing before a special Iowa House committee convened to consider the matter, McDermott argued that without a specific kind of postmark, “there is no readily available method for anyone to determine in rational way when a mail piece was put into the system.” That was demonstrably untrue, as the U.S. Postal Service used barcodes on the envelopes of 33 disputed ballots to confirm voters had mailed 29 of them on time. Fortunately for McDermott and his client, committee Republicans and later the entire House GOP caucus voted along party lines to ignore the provision of state law that explicitly allows parties in an election contest “to have the ballots opened” and counted.

McDermott served on the Polk County Republican Central Committee from 2006 to 2008 and was legal counsel for the Republican Party of Iowa from 2007 to 2012. His long list of campaign contributions to GOP candidates include multiple gifts to Reynolds’ campaign for governor and Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg’s 2014 bid for attorney general.

U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst put McDermott on their list of three candidates for the U.S. attorney position in Iowa’s Southern District in 2017. (President Donald Trump later appointed Marc Krickbaum.)

One more noteworthy experience McDermott didn’t list on his Iowa Supreme Court application: he represented Ernst in her 2018 divorce. UPDATE: McDermott also represented Matt Whitaker in his 2019 divorce. Whitaker is best known nationally as a Donald Trump loyalist who served as chief of staff to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions before being named (illegally) as acting U.S. attorney general. He’s also a former U.S. attorney and Republican candidate for statewide office in Iowa.

Reynolds told the Des Moines Register’s Stephen Gruber-Miller this week that she doesn’t ask prospective judges about their positions on specific issues that may come before the court. She won’t need to when she considers McDermott. His leanings are clear from the Republican institutions and politicians who have put their trust in him.

P.S.–During her interview with Gruber-Miller, Reynolds characterized her two previous Iowa Supreme Court appointments as bringing the high court from a very liberal position “back to the center.” That’s inaccurate. For eight years prior to Justice Daryl Hecht’s retirement in 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court was a centrist body, with the chief justice (appointed by Governor Terry Branstad) often serving as the swing vote. Cady participated in many 4-3 majority opinions, sometimes siding with the three conservatives Branstad had appointed in 2011, and sometimes siding with three justices Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack had appointed.

Reynolds’ two appointments, Justices Susan Christensen in 2018 and Christopher McDonald last year, moved the court from the center to a reliably conservative posture. That process will continue when she puts McDermott on the bench.

P.P.S.–Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren applied for the latest Iowa Supreme Court vacancy but did not make the State Judicial Nominating Commission’s short list. That’s good news for many reasons, some of which Bleeding Heartland discussed when he was an applicant in early 2019.

UPDATE: Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins announced on January 10 that he will retire in March. Since Reynolds knows she will have another appointment in just a few months, she may pick Oxley this time and McDermott on the next round.

Top photo of Matthew McDermott taken from his LinkedIn page.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin