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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Why did Kim Reynolds dodge questions about her Iowa Supreme Court choice?

Governor Kim Reynolds will hold less frequent press conferences for the duration of this year’s campaign, her staff acknowledged this week after persistent questioning by political reporter Barbara Rodriguez. The governor’s spokesperson downplayed the significance of abandoning the weekly presser, an Iowa tradition Governor Bob Ray established and Terry Branstad and Tom Vilsack maintained. All public events on Reynolds’ schedule would provide opportunities for journalists to ask questions, Rodriguez was told on July 31.

That promise didn’t hold up well. The very next day, Reynolds read carefully from written remarks when announcing District Court Judge Susan Christensen as her choice for the Iowa Supreme Court. Christensen briefly thanked her family, friends, and colleagues, and promised to support the constitution. End scene, with no question time for the assembled media. The governor’s staff also ignored my written inquiry related to the Supreme Court appointment.

It’s not hard to guess why Reynolds would block journalists from asking her or Christensen about the process for selecting the first new justice to join Iowa’s high court in seven and a half years.

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Iowa Republicans not challenging Attorney General Tom Miller

What a difference two election cycles makes. After going all in against longtime Attorney General Tom Miller in 2010 and making a token effort to defeat him in 2014, Iowa Republicans did not even nominate a candidate for attorney general at their June 16 state convention.

It’s an embarrassing capitulation for a party whose leaders relentlessly and dishonestly bashed Miller during last year’s controversy over Governor Kim Reynolds’ constitutional authority to name a new lieutenant governor.

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Diversity lacking on Iowa Democrats' new governing body

Both major parties held district conventions on April 28. One encouraging sign from the Iowa Democratic Party’s proceedings: activists are much more energized this year than usual. Every delegate slot was filled in all four Congressional districts. Quite a few alternates (including myself) did not receive credentials. According to former State Senator Jack Hatch, it was only the second time in 40 years that an IA-03 district convention “packed a full slate of delegates.” State party chair Troy Price observed in a Facebook post, “Typically, in a non-Presidential year it is a struggle to reach quorum, and this year we had more people than spots available.”

All of the district convention delegates elected at county conventions in March are automatically delegates for the state conventions in June. So the main order of business yesterday was choosing members of each party’s State Central Committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans will have lots of new faces on their governing bodies. But Democrats mostly missed an opportunity to elect leaders who reflect the diversity of the party’s base.

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Weekend thread: Statewide candidate edition

Iowa will soon have its first new secretary of agriculture since 2007. The U.S. Senate confirmed Bill Northey on February 27 as undersecretary for farm production and conservation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He should have been confirmed months ago; senators on the Agriculture Committee unanimously endorsed his nomination in October. But Senator Ted Cruz of Texas held the nomination over a Renewable Fuel Standard dispute that has nothing to do with Northey’s portfolio.

Once Northey resigns as Iowa secretary of agriculture, Governor Kim Reynolds will appoint his longtime deputy Mike Naig to fill that post for the rest of this year, the governor’s office announced on March 1. I enclose Naig’s official bio below. One of five Republicans who have said they will run for Northey’s job, Naig formally launched his campaign for that office on March 2. At this writing, only Craig Lang has qualified for the primary ballot. Other declared GOP candidates are Ray Gaesser, Chad Ingels, and Dan Zumbach. UPDATE: Northey posted on Twitter March 6, “I heartily endorse Mike Naig as our next Iowa Ag Secy. Mike has been a great partner as my Deputy Secy of ag for 4+ yrs. Mike is ready to lead. Let’s elect Mike in June & Nov!”

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