Matthew McDermott to continue Iowa Supreme Court's rightward march

Governor Kim Reynolds on April 3 named Des Moines attorney Matthew McDermott to succeed retiring Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins. During seventeen years in private practice, McDermott has worked on a wide variety of cases. Bleeding Heartland posted lengthy excerpts from his application and interview with the State Judicial Nominating Commission last month.

This appointment will continue the Iowa Supreme Court’s sharp turn to the right since 2018. As Bleeding Heartland discussed when McDermott was a finalist for the previous vacancy, he has worked closely with influential Republicans and handled some politically charged cases. He defended the 2017 collective bargaining law on behalf of the state and represented an Iowa House Republican seeking not to count 29 absentee ballots his constituents had cast on time.

On the other hand, McDermott has done a substantial amount of criminal defense work, and his application highlighted an unsuccessful appeal raising Fourth Amendment issues as one of his significant cases. Wiggins was a consistent voice for individual rights on the Supreme Court, including in many search and seizure cases.

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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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Susan Christensen is least experienced Iowa chief justice in decades

Less than nineteen months after being appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court, Susan Christensen is now that body’s chief justice. Justice David Wiggins had served as acting leader on the high court since the unexpected passing of Chief Justice Mark Cady in November.

When Governor Kim Reynolds, Republican lawmakers, and one or more Supreme Court justices schemed last year to end Cady’s term early, Justice Thomas Waterman was widely seen as the chief-in-waiting. However, by the time Reynolds appointed Cady’s replacement, Dana Oxley, in late January, multiple sources indicated Waterman was no longer interested in the job. The seven justices elected Christensen on February 24.

It’s been many years since a justice has risen so quickly to the Iowa Supreme Court’s most senior position.

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Iowa Republicans pushing anti-abortion bills while they still can

Republican lawmakers in the Iowa House and Senate advanced several bills targeting abortion procedures and providers this week, as a legislative deadline approached.

Several political factors make this year a perfect time for the GOP to curtail Iowa women’s reproductive rights. First, it’s an election year, and no issue motivates social conservative voters more than abortion. Second, 2020 may be the last year of a Republican trifecta. Democrats have a realistic chance to win control of the Iowa House (now split 53-47) in November, which would take any anti-abortion legislation off the table. Finally,  Governor Kim Reynolds will soon have appointed four of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices, ensuring that the high court will uphold almost any abortion restriction passed this year.

Where things stand on the anti-abortion bills introduced this year:

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