Iowa Supreme Court Justice Marsha Ternus recently interviewed with Iowa Public Radio’s The Exchange Program. In the interview she criticized a proposal (HJR 2013) by State Representative Kent Sorenson (R-Indianola) to go back to direct election of judges instead of the merit-based appointment process. She said it would be a step backwards for the state.
Iowans were bright enough in the 1960s to go to merit selection for judges. So our judges are chosen on the basis of their professional qualifications, their integrity, and their ability to do the job. If we go to political elections it would change the entire nature of judiciary.
I agree, it would change the entire nature of the judiciary. I can also see problems with direct election, especially in terms of campaign financing. So I can’t say that I’m in favor of direct elections either. I think Chief Justice Ternus is being naive if she thinks that politics or ideology don’t come into play in the nomination process however. I think the problem is how nominations occur. The Iowa Constitution states that members of state and district nominating commissions who are appointed are appointed by the Governor and then confirmed by the Senate. The elected members, however, are “elected by the resident members of the bar of the state.” A Senior Supreme Court Justice (other than the Chief Justice) is to serve as the chairman of the state nominating commission. A Senior District Court Judge is to serve as a chairman of the district nominating commission.
Does anyone think that The Iowa State Bar Association should really have that much control of the process? And we are to believe that politics and ideology doesn’t play a role at all? No wonder the Iowa Bar Association doesn’t like this bill, their lobbyist, Jim Carney, said to The Quad City Times that they don’t like this proposal or one being advanced by State Representative Rod Roberts (HJR 2012) that calls for the appointment of nine justices one from each district and one at large.
It’s not what the Iowa Bar Association wants, especially the direct election of judges.
"We’re on the merit system," bar lobbyist Jim Carney said. "States that elect justices have unbelievable problems."
The bar doesn’t look favorably on geographic balance, either.
"We want the best candidate, wherever they are in the state without restrictions," Carney said.
Honestly I don’t care what the Iowa Bar Association wants, but no wonder they don’t want it. They’d lose influence! They shouldn’t be involved in the process at all with the exception of giving feedback. Something any citizen should be able to do. As far as having geographical balance, that just makes sense. I’m sure the Bar would rather all of the justices come from Des Moines or Eastern Iowa though. I like Robert’s idea, and I think the elected members of the commissions should be elected by the people. I mean we vote on who serves on water and soil conservation boards for crying out loud, why not this?
Chief Justice Ternus also doesn’t think that the retention vote that Supreme Court Justices have to go through every eight years (District Court Judges every six) should be used as a referendum. Ternus along with Justices Michael Streit and David Bake are up for retention in November. She said:
Because we have a merit system, that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote should be exercised on the basis of ‘Is the judge performing his or her duties competently and as one would expect a fair and impartial decision maker to perform those duties. I’m confident that the people of Iowa want to retain the system that we have and make it work in the way it was intended to work.
I would say if the question is if the judge is performing his or her duties competently, then the answer would have to be no, since they overstepped their constitutional authority in the same-sex ruling decision. Right now this is our only recourse. When you have decisions like this, and the one made by the District Judge, Timothy O’Grady, in Fremont County it is our duty to make sure these people no longer serve on the bench. My only complaint with the retention vote provision in the Iowa Constitution is that it doesn’t allow a vote sooner. Every four years would be more appropriate. Perhaps she thinks impeachment would be better.
There needs to be accountability for the Judiciary, but Ternus and The Iowa State Bar Association would rather keep status quo. It shouldn’t surprise us that they want what is in their own best interest not yours.