DES MOINES, Iowa – Eight Democrat state representatives and an attorney from Cedar Rapids filed a lawsuit in Polk County District Court on Wednesday to block changes made to the state judicial nominating commission who decides on nominees for the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The plaintiffs are Bob Rush, a Democrat who is an attorney and a former state senator from Cedar Rapids and State Reps. Brian Meyer of Des Moines, Rick Olson of Des Moines, Mary Mascher of Iowa City, Art Staed of Cedar Rapids, Liz Bennett of Cedar Rapids, Jo Oldson of Des Moines, and Mary Wolfe of Clinton.

They name as defendants Gov. Kim Reynolds, who signed the legislation, Glen Dickenson, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, Leslie Hickey, Iowa Code Editor, and Dan Huitick who Reynolds just appointed to the state judicial nominating commission, in their official capacities.

The reform to the judicial nominating commissions is watered-down from what was originally introduced in the Iowa House and what passed in the Iowa Senate. The change keeps the members of the district and state nominating commissions who are decided by members of the Iowa Bar but eliminates the Supreme Court justice who sits on each commission and gives the governor one more appointed member, so the Governor appoints the majority of the commission. It also limits the Chief Justice’s term to two years.

The compromise language was added to a standings bill at the end of the session as an amendment during debate on the Iowa House floor on April 27, 2019.

The plaintiffs allege that the reform violates the Iowa Constitution in two ways.

First, they cite Article III, Section 29, the one subject clause, that reads, “Every Act shall embrace but one subject, and matters properly connected therewith; which subject shall be expressed in the title. But if any subject shall be shall be expressed in an Act which shall not be expressed in the title, such Act shall be void only as to so much thereof as shall not be expressed in the title.”

The plaintiffs claim that the Iowa Constitution “requires the title of the bill to contain the the subject matter of the bill to prevent fraud and surprise.”

The bill reads:

AN ACT RELATING TO STATE AND LOCAL FINANCES BY MAKING APPROPRIATIONS, PROVIDING FOR LEGAL AND REGULATORY RESPONSIBILITIES, PROVIDING FOR OTHER PROPERLY RELATED MATTERS, AND INCLUDING EFFECTIVE DATE, APPLICABILITY, AND RETROACTIVE APPLICABILITY PROVISIONS.”

“This is a desperate attempt by a small group of Democrats to ingratiate themselves to the trial bar,” Bill Gustoff, Des Moines-area attorney and member of the Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee, told Caffeinated Thoughts

Gustoff advocated for the change during a public hearing held by a subcommittee on the original bill.

“This was done in the ordinary course of work by the Legislature,” he said.

Gustoff also anticipated that the only way the court will throw out the law is if a hand-picked judge does it.

The amendment was brought before the Iowa House, debated, and voted on. The original bills had public hearings and what passed was a minor tweak to the commissions compared to what legislators originally discussed.

Second, the plaintiffs claim the change violates the separation of powers established in Article IV, Section 1 of the Iowa Constitution because of the change in selection and term of the office of the Chief Justice. They claim the change encroaches on judicial powers.

The Iowa Constitution references the Chief Justice but does not indicate the length of the office’s term or how the Chief Justice is selected. The Iowa Legislature in 1983 set the term of the Chief Justice that was signed into law by former Governor Terry Branstad before the reform to coincide with that Justice’s term in office. It is unclear how changing this violates the separation of powers when the legislature was the body that defined how the chief justice was elected and the length of term for the office.

Read the court filing below:

Photo credit: Ctjf83 via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-SA 3.0)

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