Iowa Supreme Court takes a right turn under Gov. Reynolds

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds - AP image

Through a combination of coincidence, a mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges and changes in the selection process that favor Republicans, Reynolds could make the most appointments to the seven-member court since former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack named five from 1999 to 2007.

Posted: Jul 3, 2019 10:16 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is transforming the Iowa Supreme Court from one that leaned liberal to a solidly conservative body, prompting concerns among critics that it could erode past support for civil liberties as well as abortion and gay rights.

Through a combination of coincidence, a mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges and changes in the selection process that favor Republicans, Reynolds could make the most appointments to the seven-member court since former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack named five from 1999 to 2007.

Governor for just over two years, Reynolds already has appointed two justices — one due to illness and another a retirement . One of her appointees is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, which has been instrumental in vetting judges for President Donald Trump's aggressive push to remake the federal courts.

The current balance of the court is 5-2 Republican, although GOP appointee Chief Justice Mark Cady often sides with liberals. Reynolds will get to replace Brent Appel, a Democratic appointee, who turns 72 in 2022, the last year of her current term. If she runs and wins a second term as governor she could replace David Wiggins in 2023, the last retiring Democrat appointee and Cady in 2025 to complete the conservative transformation.

It marks a stark contrast from the recent past, when an Iowa Supreme Court ruling in 2009 made it the third state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage. As recently as 2018, the court established the foundation for a fundamental right to abortion under the Iowa constitution. Reynolds' appointment were after that ruling.

Since the abortion ruling, the new majority has begun to assert itself. Last week in a 4-3 decision , the new majority concluded that police can continue to charge drivers with crimes they weren't initially stopped for, a practice civil rights groups say is racial discrimination.

In May the court in another 4-3 decision , supported a 2017 law that removed bargaining rights for many state employees.

Republicans this year used their advantage of control over the governor's office and majorities in both chambers of the Legislature to change the selection process for judges from a nonpartisan judicial commission to one giving the governor more power.

Under the previous system established in the 1960s, potential judges and justices were chosen by a commission made up of lawyers elected by lawyers and appointees named by the governor. The equal balance of legal professionals and political appointees was seen as a way to minimize political influence. The commission was chaired by the senior justice of the state Supreme Court.

The commission reviewed applications for openings on the bench and sent three finalists to the governor, who names justices.

Supreme Court justices in Iowa face retention elections every eight years and must earn a majority of votes to remain on the bench.

Republicans complained that the lawyers appointed to the commission tended to be more to the left and sent liberal nominees to the governor.

They cited a law professor's 2017 research suggesting that Iowa's courts leaned to the left of its citizens more than any state except New Hampshire of the 36 states that used judicial commissions to help select judges.

"Iowa was near the top in terms of leftward judiciary," said Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick, who studied 3,000 state appellate judges tracking campaign contributions, party registration and primary voting data to reflect political leaning.

Reynolds signed into law in May a change that removed the senior Supreme Court justice as the chairman and replaced him with the governor's appointee , giving her a majority on the commission.

"We're certainly concerned now because the governor does have more power and I think is more partisan," said Connie Ryan, chairwoman of Justice Not Politics, a group that pushes to keep politics out of the courts.

The changes prompted several Democratic lawmakers to sue, saying the new law was legislative overreach and violated the state constitution. But the lawsuit was dismissed last week. The lawmakers have appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Religious conservatives are thrilled with the changes, hoping that a Republican-dominated court will endorse restrictions on abortion.

"It's an improvement. Our biggest thing is to put power back to the people and get judges favorable to the constitution," said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Christian conservative activist who heads a group called The Family Leader. "We believe the sanctity of human life is constitutional, that our plan for marriage is constitutional."

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