Iowa Supreme Court finalists McDermott, Chicchelly, and May, in their own words

After interviewing fifteen applicants, the State Judicial Nominating Commission on March 6 agreed on three nominees for the Iowa Supreme Court: Matthew McDermott, District Court Judge Mary Chicchelly, and Iowa Court of Appeals Judge David May. Governor Kim Reynolds will appoint one of them during the next few weeks.

To the credit of the commissioners, all three finalists are well-qualified to serve. Thanks to a law Republicans enacted in 2019, commission members appointed by either Reynolds or Governor Terry Branstad now outnumber elected attorneys, meaning they had the votes to send less-experienced but politically-connected loyalists to the governor. They did not.

I’ve enclosed below highlights from each finalist’s application and interview, along with some noteworthy comments by three candidates who didn’t make it onto the short list: Brenna Bird, Alan Ostergren, and Sam Langholz.

I felt confident in January that Reynolds would appoint McDermott, because of his past work for the Republican Party of Iowa and close ties to senior GOP officials. Knowing now that the governor’s own legal counsel Langholz has ambitions to serve on the Supreme Court, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Reynolds pick a different finalist. Langholz’s job involves helping the governor interview and select judges. He has incentive to steer her toward appointing a candidate who has presided over a District Court, to improve the odds of the State Judicial Nominating Commission selecting someone who lacks that experience next time. Reynolds will get at least one more appointment to the high court, because Supreme Court Justice Brent Appel will reach the mandatory retirement age in 2022.

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Four red flags about Iowa Supreme Court applicant Sam Langholz

UPDATE: The commission recommended Mary Chicchelly, David May, and Matthew McDermott. I’ve added below highlights from Langholz’s interview.

Iowa’s State Judicial Nominating Commission will interview candidates to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins on March 6. The fifteen applicants include two finalists Governor Kim Reynolds passed over for the vacancy she filled last month (District Court Judge Joel Barrows and Matthew McDermott) and several who have applied for previous vacancies, such as District Court Judges Mary Chicchelly and Patrick Tott, District Associate Judge Romonda Belcher, Assistant Attorney General Molly Weber, and Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren.

Three applicants have provoked anxiety in Iowa legal circles. Bleeding Heartland discussed some problematic aspects of Ostergren’s record when he applied for a Supreme Court vacancy last year. Guthrie County Attorney Brenna (Findley) Bird previously served as chief of staff for U.S. Representative Steve King and later as Governor Terry Branstad’s legal counsel. In that capacity, a jury found last year, Bird and Branstad violated the constitutional rights of former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey. While working in the Branstad administration, Bird was also involved in rushing through an effort to ban the use of telemedicine for abortions. The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously struck down that administrative rule in 2015.

The greatest concern has centered on Sam Langholz, the governor’s senior legal counsel. He is widely perceived as Reynolds’ top choice. Thanks to changes in the selection process Langholz helped engineer last year, the governor may have the votes on the State Judicial Nominating Commission to get her subordinate on Iowa’s highest court.

That would be troubling for several reasons.

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The 19 Bleeding Heartland posts that were most fun to write in 2019

Before the new political year kicks off with the Iowa legislature convening and Governor Kim Reynolds laying out her agenda, I need to take care of some unfinished business from 2019.

When I reflect on my work at the end of each year, I like to take stock of not only the most popular posts published on this website and the ones I worked hardest on, but also the projects that brought me the most joy. I’ve found this exercise helps guide my editorial decisions on the many days when I have time to write up only one of several newsworthy stories.

Among the 348 posts I wrote last year, these were some of my favorites:

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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.

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Ten things to know about the Iowa Supreme Court applicants

The State Judicial Nominating Commission will meet on January 30 to consider nineteen applicants seeking to replace Iowa Supreme Court Justice Daryl Hecht, who stepped down last month. The commission will then send Governor Kim Reynolds a list of three candidates, one of whom will be appointed to the high court within 30 days.

After reviewing the applications, I compiled some noteworthy facts about the contenders. One of them is not like the others.

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Weekend open thread: Accountability

Senator Chuck Grassley hit a new low last week in running interference for the White House on the Trump/Russia investigation. After leaders of the private research firm Fusion GPS called on Congressional Republicans “to release full transcripts of our firm’s testimony” about the so-called Steele dossier, Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham wrote to the Department of Justice and the FBI “urging an investigation into Christopher Steele.” Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein was not consulted about the referral, which she accurately characterized as “another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee’s top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice.”

Here in Iowa, the Department of Human Services recently acknowledged that privatizing Medicaid “will save the state 80 percent less money this fiscal year than originally predicted,” Tony Leys reported for the Des Moines Register. The Branstad/Reynolds administration has claimed since 2015 that shifting care for one-sixth of Iowans to private companies would result in big savings for the state. Officials were never able to show the math underlying those estimates. Staff for Governor Kim Reynolds and the DHS now portray the miscalculation as an honest mistake, which a more “comprehensive methodology” will correct. The governor would have been wiser to pull the plug on this disaster last year.

Forthcoming Bleeding Heartland posts will address those failures in more depth. But now it’s time to hold myself accountable for the 17 Iowa politics predictions I made at the beginning of 2017. Did I improve on my showing of seven right, two half-right, and seven wrong out of my 16 predictions for 2016?

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