Iowa’s judicial selection process is one of the best in the nation

‘Our Founding Fathers were well aware of the destabilizing and corrupting influence of politics on a fair and impartial judicial system.’

Iowa’s judicial system is uniformly regarded as one of the best in the nation. Its judges are recognized as fair, intelligent and competent. Iowa courts are uniformly recognized for their lack of corruption, their even-handed administration of justice, and the impartiality of the judges. Such hard-earned long-standing excellence in Iowa’s judicial system is something to be prized and treated with delicacy, and not to be lightly trifled with.

It goes without saying a competent jurist must understand the underlying principles of the practice and be able to apply these principles in a logical reasoned and consistent matter. When the law is so applied then people and businesses have faith in the justice of our legal system. And faith in the legal system is crucial for the survival of democracy. Iowa’s people and businesses have faith in their current state judicial system. And that faith can only be maintained if the Iowa courts continue to foster their strong reputation for impartiality and freedom from political favoritism or taint.

Directly contrary to the principle of applying logic and reason and consistency is the insertion of politics into the judicial system. It is common experience that when politics are inserted, the judicial system becomes unreliable and corrupt. And such unreliability and corruption in any judicial system is a major destabilizing factor to both basic justice and to business development.

Our Founding Fathers were well aware of the destabilizing and corrupting influence of politics on a fair and impartial judicial system. One of the primary goals of our Founding Fathers in formulating the United States Constitution was preserving the independence of the judiciary from political considerations and insulating it from the vacillating infighting of various political views. They well knew that allowing political considerations to infect judicial deliberations would have a severe corrosive effect on the young Republic.

The same consideration holds true for the independence and competence of Iowa’s judiciary. Iowa has a proud history of outstanding jurisprudence. In its very first case, In the Matter of Ralph, the Iowa Supreme Court held that the law of Iowa did not recognize the right of property in persons; hence, the former slave Ralph was entitled to his freedom and could not forcibly be returned to his former owner. In writing the opinion, Chief Justice Mason stated: “[It] is proper that the laws, which should extend equal protection to men of all color and conditions, should exert their remedial interposition.”

In 1868, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that separate schools based on race were inherently unequal in Clark v. The Board of Directors, decided almost a century before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the same in its 1954 landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education.

Continuing in this tradition of judicial excellence in administration and application of the law, Iowa currently has an outstanding formula for nominating competent judges, a system that is specifically designed to remove as much as possible the corrosive destabilizing effects of political consideration in picking competent state court judges. This system has been in effect since 1962, and is widely respected throughout the United States. It is well known that Iowa’s selection process is one of the fairest and most civil in the country. Perhaps this is true in part due to the fact that we are Iowans, and such fairness and civility comes naturally to us. But such excellent reputation is likewise due in large part to the very competent judges that uniformly populate Iowa’s court benches — judges that were chosen through Iowa’s present judicial nominating system.

Iowa’s present judicial nominating system already has a significant measure of protection. The various nominating committees are composed of both Iowa lawyers and non-lawyers. They do the initial collecting and screening of potential judicial nominees. After undergoing this screening process, three nominees for Iowa Supreme Court seat and two nominees for the other judicial openings are submitted to the governor. The governor then makes the final selection. Thus, the political branches of the government do have a strong say in who is finally appointed to fill the judicial vacancy.

Each judge so selected must then periodically stand for retention; a Supreme Court justice every eight years and other judges every six years. That way, Iowa voters also have an ongoing say in whether certain judges remain on the bench.

Now there is a bill before both the Iowa House and Senate to drastically overhaul Iowa’s judicial selection process. In doing so, House File 503 would radically reintroduce politics back into what is supposed to be the non-political third branch of government. Under the new proposal, state legislative leaders would have a much more direct role in appointing judges.

The impetus behind this move to directly insert more politics into Iowa’s judicial selection process is expressed as a desire to get rid of the role that Iowa’s lawyers currently have in picking judges. However, this concern is both misplaced and ill-informed.

First, there are numerous other persons besides lawyers involved in both the judicial selection and nomination process, as well as in the (potentially) very political confirmation process.

Secondly, the practice of law is a very specialized technical trade. Good lawyers — and Iowa has many — recognize other good lawyers. Lawyers deal with each other every day. Prosecutors deal with defense attorneys. Insurance defense lawyers deal with plaintiff lawyers. Probate lawyers deal with other probate lawyers. Family law lawyers deal with other family law lawyers. Over time, those lawyers who are intelligent and competent and ethical and professional become known to other legal practitioners. When these attorneys who have developed such a reputation put their names forward, other attorneys within the judicial nomination process can recognize these attorneys. Additionally, attorneys have the known ability, developed as part of the practice of law, to reach out to other attorneys and find out if other attorneys have reservations or recommendations for the attorney in question. Thus, the practitioners of that particular profession are the most likely to know if the potential nominee has the necessary competence and the so-called “judicial temperament” so necessary to fair trials and hearings and impartial rational decision-making.

If the Iowa Supreme Court’s recent decisions prompting this effort to change Iowa’s judicial selection process were shown to be poorly reasoned, or that the Court incorrectly applied legal precedent or improperly let outside matters (including religious or political considerations) influence its decisions, then there would be a legitimate case to be made to re-examine Iowa’s judicial selection process. Iowa’s courts carry a nation-wide excellent reputation for fairness and impartiality and clarity of reasoning, together with a consistent lack of corruption or political influence. And what is essential is a good working judicial system.

Judge Albert Habhab is a retired Chief Judge of the Iowa Court of Appeals and Fort Dodge resident. He gives special recognition to his former law clerk, Jim Benzoni, a practicing attorney in Des Moines.