# Iowa Judiciary

Kent Sorenson wants to bring back Iowa Supreme Court elections (updated)

Republican State Representative Kent Sorenson is trying to amend the Iowa Constitution to bring back elections for the seven state Supreme Court justices.

Republicans Dwayne Alons and Jason Schultz joined Sorenson in introducing House Joint Resolution 2013 this week. It would amend the constitution to require Supreme Court justices to be elected to six-year terms. Lower-court judges would continue to be appointed, as they have been since Iowa approved a constitutional amendment in 1962 to eliminate judicial elections. Under the current system, the governor appoints district and Supreme Court judges from lists of nominees submitted by judicial nominating commissions.

Other social conservatives have vowed to defeat the three Supreme Court justices who are up for retention in 2010 because of last year’s Varnum v Brien ruling, which cleared the way for same-sex marriage in Iowa. But even that isn’t good enough for Sorenson and his allies. They are so upset about one court ruling that they would toss out a method for selecting judges which has worked well for nearly a half-century. The Des Moines-based American Judicature Society has plenty of resources on the importance of judicial independence and the benefits of a merit-based system over judicial elections. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United case lifted restrictions on corporate spending to influence elections, providing another reason not to mess with Iowa’s judicial selection process.

Sorenson’s constitutional amendment probably won’t go anywhere, but he may use the proposal as a rallying cry in his campaign against Staci Appel in Iowa Senate district 37 this year. Appel’s husband, Brent Appel, is an Iowa Supreme Court justice. He is not up for retention this November.

UPDATE: Via the latest from Todd Dorman I learned that State Representative Rod Roberts, a Republican candidate for governor, has introduced his own constitutional amendment:

His proposal, House Joint Resolution 2012, calls for appointing nine justices – one from each judicial district and one at-large. It would require justices to continue to live in the district as long as they sit on the court.

“Even people in the legal profession tell me this would help the court get connected at the grass roots level,” he said.

Dorman comments,

Justices should answer to the state constitution, the law and precedent, not to public sentiment. They’re appointed through a bipartisan, drama-free process that focuses on their experience and qualifications. They already face regular retention votes.

So explain to me why we would throw out that system in favor of open electioneering. It’s a horrible idea.

And picking them by geography instead of qualifications isn’t much better.

How is this stuff conservative?

You don’t want judges who “legislate from the bench,” so you elect them just like legislators?

The Iowa Bar Association opposes the proposals from Sorenson and Roberts.

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Let Iowa courts consolidate

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus had bad news about the condition of the judiciary when she addressed the Iowa legislature yesterday.

Since the 2002 fiscal year, she noted, staffing levels have been reduce[d] by 17 percent. In just the last year, staff was cut by 11 percent. In fact, the state’s courts now operate with a smaller workforce than it had in 1987, the year the state assumed full funding for the court system. The number of serious and time-consuming cases before the court, however, have increased by 66 percent.

Ternus also argued that budget shortfalls have adversely impacted the Judicial Branch more than any other aspect or agency in government.

“Unlike many state agencies and the regents, the judicial branch has no pass-through funds, no programs to cut and no reserves to tap. Nearly all our operating costs are for people – employees and judges who are the life blood of the court system – so when we cut our budget, we must cut our workforce.”

Ternus warned of “assembly line justice” and “de facto consolidation” of courts if state legislators do not at least maintain current levels of funding. (Click here for a pdf file containing the full text of Ternus’ speech.)

While the judiciary has faced several rounds of budget cuts, demand for court services has increased because of the recession. For example, during the past two years mortgage foreclosures have increased by 34 percent in Iowa, cases relating to domestic violence protection have increased 15 percent, and “juvenile commitments for drug or mental-health issues” have risen by 76 percent.

Current state law requires courts to operate in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. That made sense when it could take the better part of a day for people to travel to their county courthouse, but it’s not an efficient use of resources now. I am with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board: state legislators need to either allocate enough funding for the judicial system we have, or amend the law to allow some consolidation of courthouses. The latter would run up against stiff resistance in the Iowa House and Senate because of the likely impact on some small county-seat towns. But it’s wrong to let civil and criminal court services degrade across the state. If budget constraints demand efficiency measures in other branches of government, let the judiciary make the best use of available funds by consolidating where necessary.

UPDATE: Governor Chet Culver told the Iowa Independent that he shares the concerns Ternus raised and does not support any further funding cuts for the judiciary.

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