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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Year in review: Iowa politics in 2009 (part 1)

I expected 2009 to be a relatively quiet year in Iowa politics, but was I ever wrong.

The governor’s race heated up, state revenues melted down, key bills lived and died during the legislative session, and the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Varnum v Brien became one of this state’s major events of the decade.

After the jump I’ve posted links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage of Iowa politics from January through June 2009. Any comments about the year that passed are welcome in this thread.

Although I wrote a lot of posts last year, there were many important stories I didn’t manage to cover. I recommend reading Iowa Independent’s compilation of “Iowa’s most overlooked and under reported stories of 2009,” as well as that blog’s review of “stories that will continue to impact Iowa in 2010.”

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Year in review: national politics in 2009 (part 1)

It took me a week longer than I anticipated, but I finally finished compiling links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage from last year. This post and part 2, coming later today, include stories on national politics, mostly relating to Congress and Barack Obama’s administration. Diaries reviewing Iowa politics in 2009 will come soon.

One thing struck me while compiling this post: on all of the House bills I covered here during 2009, Democrats Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack voted the same way. That was a big change from 2007 and 2008, when Blue Dog Boswell voted with Republicans and against the majority of the Democratic caucus on many key bills.

No federal policy issue inspired more posts last year than health care reform. Rereading my earlier, guardedly hopeful pieces was depressing in light of the mess the health care reform bill has become. I was never optimistic about getting a strong public health insurance option through Congress, but I thought we had a chance to pass a very good bill. If I had anticipated the magnitude of the Democratic sellout on so many aspects of reform in addition to the public option, I wouldn’t have spent so many hours writing about this issue. I can’t say I wasn’t warned (and warned), though.

Links to stories from January through June 2009 are after the jump. Any thoughts about last year’s political events are welcome in this thread.

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Don't pass up historic opportunities

A few thoughts came to mind when I read about the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. Massey this week. The case involved a West Virginia Supreme Court judge who refused to recuse himself from a trial, even though the chief executive of one of the litigants had spent $3 million to help the judge get elected. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court found that due process requires a judge to recuse himself if large campaign contributions create the appearance of partiality.

Like Scarecrow at the Oxdown Gazette, I found the hackery of Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissenting opinion revealing.

Mostly I was shocked to learn from this New York Times article that judges are still elected in 39 states. It’s bad enough that money corrupts our elections for the legislative and executive branches. Judicial elections create opportunities for “legalized bribery” as well as incentives for judges to let public opinion unduly shape their interpretation of the law in high-profile cases.  

I agree with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board:

The fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw an ethical distinction between a bribe and a campaign contribution is a strong argument for why judges should not be elected. Period.

Iowa voters did away with judicial elections by approving an amendment to the state constitution in 1962. The governor appoints judges at all levels. The public has input through nominating commissions that evaluate potential appointees before forwarding a short list to the governor. In addition, judges can be removed either by the Iowa Supreme Court for disability or good cause, or by the voters through periodic retention elections.

We are fortunate that Iowans recognized the wisdom of scrapping judicial elections when the constitutional amendment was on the ballot. This page on the website of the American Judicature Society lists failed judicial reform efforts in numerous other states. As you can see, state legislators and voters have rejected similar proposals despite years of hard work by reform advocates.

Let this be a lesson for policy-makers at all levels to seize the chance to make big changes for the better, such as the currently favorable environment for health care reform. Opportunities to ditch deeply flawed but entrenched systems don’t come around every year, every election cycle or even every decade.

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