Understanding the Judicial Appointment Process and the Important Role of the Next Governor

As the retention of judges on this year’s ballot receives increased attention, it can be helpful to understand the system by which our judges are chosen and appointed. The focus of this article will be the Iowa Supreme Court Justices, while the processes for the appointment of lower court justices differs, they are largely a variation of the Supreme Court process.

When there is a vacancy on the Iowa Supreme Court it is left to the State Judicial Nominating Commission to accept applications and review them. Eligible candidates to the Supreme Court must be residents of the state and a member of the Iowa State Bar. The Nominating Commission has 60 days from the time they are given notice of the vacancy to certify three nominees to the Governor. The three nominees chosen by the Nominating Commission become the exclusive candidates from which the Governor may nominate.

With the power to limit the Governor’s choices to such a degree, the State Judicial Nominating Commission’s influence cast a large shadow over the process. It is clear then, that to understand the make up of the Court, we must understand the group choosing the candidates.

The State Judicial nomination commission is made up of three types of members. The chairperson of the Nominating Commission is the longest serving justice of the Iowa Supreme Court. The Governor then appoints a member from each congressional district who is subject to approval from the State Senate. The members of the Iowa State Bar then elect a member from each congressional district. The congressional districts used in this context are the ones as they were set in 1965. At that time there were seven congressional seats in Iowa and this is why there are seven appointed members and seven elected members.

The appointed and elected members of the Nominating Commission serve staggered six-year terms. State law does not place any requirement of political balance on the Nominating Commission. It does however require that no more than a simple majority of the members appointed may be of the same gender and the members elected by the state bar must stagger between male and female members. According to information available on Governor Culver’s website, all seven of the currently appointed members are registered Democrats.

It is these 15 individuals who hand pick a list of three nominees for Governors to appoint justices to the Iowa Supreme Court. The Governor is given 30 days in which to make a decision. If no decision is made, it is then left to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to select from the list of nominees.

The next Governor of the State of Iowa does have a unique opportunity to influence the State Judicial Nominating Commission. This is because in anticipation of the expected loss of a Congressional seat in Iowa, the Legislature in 2008 provided for special appointments of an all new Nominating Commission. Rather than relying on the 1965 congressional districts, the State will move to using the districts as they are determined by the 2010 federal decennial census. The result is two appointed and two elected members from each of the expected four congressional districts. It also means the Nominating Commission will have 17 members in the future rather than 15.

As a result of the 2008 legislation, the terms of all current members of the Nominating Commission expire on December 31, 2012. A fresh group of appointed and elected members will have staggered terms ranging between two and six years, beginning January 1, 2013.

No Governor, over one term, will have ever had the ability to influence the State Judicial Nominating Commission to such a degree since it was first established. For this reason, this year’s Gubernatorial election presents a unique opportunity for voters to consider.