Two weeks ago, I wrote about an exciting and long overdue new effort in Iowa to reform that state’s broken judicial-selection process. For over 50 years, under the guise of a so-called “merit -selection” system, trial lawyer-controlled bar associations have wielded undue power and influence over the process of picking judges — to the detriment of all Iowans. Now with Governor Kim Reynolds’s support and leadership, Iowa legislators have been pressing a new bill that would bring reform. The measure, SF 237, would eliminate trial lawyers’ outsized role in judicial selection, ending what Governor Reynolds recently described as a process “filled with backroom politics that leaves the vast majority of Iowans in the dark.”
Under Iowa’s current system, district bar associations hold eight out of seventeen seats on the state’s Appellate Judicial Commission. No judge can make it onto the Iowa Supreme Court or Court of Appeals without first being recommended by the Commission, and holding these seats gives the trial lawyer-dominated bar associations an undemocratic stranglehold on appellate judicial picks. SF 237 would end this paradigm, instead giving elected, democratically accountable legislative leaders the right to fill these seats on the commission.
This path is one that other states have followed in recent years. Oklahoma diluted the state bar’s influence in its judicial-selection system in 2010. Tennessee eliminated its merit-selection system altogether in 2014, switching to a federal-like system of gubernatorial appointment.
Now the fight turns to the Iowa House where things are expected to be more contentious. Republicans hold only a slim 54–46 majority in that chamber, leaving little margin for error. There is reason to be optimistic, though. Speaker Linda Upmeyer is a staunch conservative who has previously written about the importance of “appoint[ing] justices to our courts that interpret the Constitution the way it is written,”and she has proven herself time and again to be able to shepherd through to passage important but controversial legislation. If she can get the bill through the House, Governor Reynolds is expected to sign it into law, and Iowa will be on its way towards more accountable and fairer courts.
Iowa has waited a long time for reforms like these. Soon, that wait may finally be over.
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