Appeals Court Backs Iowa System for Vetting Judges

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A federal appeals court on Monday rejected a legal challenge to the Iowa commission that nominates candidates to serve on the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by conservatives that challenged the Judicial Nominating Commission's makeup at a time when the panel was vetting applicants to replace three justices ousted by voters after legalizing gay marriage.

The lawsuit challenged a constitutional amendment requiring members of the Iowa Bar Association to elect seven of the 15 commissioners. It argued the commission gave too much influence to lawyers and was unconstitutional because ordinary citizens had no say in those seven appointments.

Seven other commissioners are nonlawyers appointed by the governor. The chair is a member of the Iowa Supreme Court under the state's merit system for judges, which was adopted by voters in 1962. The commission interviews applicants and recommends a slate of finalists for each opening to the governor, who has the final say on who to appoint.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt dismissed the lawsuit last year, allowing the panel to continue recommending finalists for judicial openings to Gov. Terry Branstad without changes. Four Iowa residents who were plaintiffs — and represented by a prominent conservative attorney Jim Bopp — appealed.

The appeals court agreed with Pratt that allowing the Iowa Bar to select commission members did not violate the rights of nonlawyers and made perfect sense.

"Attorneys will typically be more familiar with the judicial candidates than the general public," the opinion reads. "They will be in a better position to evaluate each candidate's qualifications and determine who has the legal acumen, the intelligence, and the temperament to best serve the people of Iowa."

In a statement, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller praised the ruling. He said it "speaks loud and clear about the manner in which Iowans have chosen to select our state's Supreme Court justices."

Bopp didn't immediately return a phone message.

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