Unhappiness no justification for bad policy

Here’s a thought: The Legislature could pass laws capable of surviving constitutional scrutiny.

That was my first thought after listening to Iowa Press moderator David Yepsen query state Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, about the ongoing, blatant GOP judicial power grab.

“It will put politics right in the middle of what is supposed to be an objective, impartial process that right now is considered one of the best in the country,” Wolfe said when asked about a Republican plan that changes how Iowa judges, including Supreme Court justices, are selected. The state, she added, would be better off making small changes to the nomination and retention process approved by Iowa voters nearly 60 years ago.

“If you are a conservative, and you’re unhappy, what will you do then?” Yepsen asked in response.

The question is ill-advised because it goes directly to why conservatives in the Iowa Legislature and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds have taken aim at the judiciary: It is the one branch of government they don’t control, and the one branch of government that can only be controlled through nefarious means.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, also on the panel, spoke repeatedly about the bill giving “the people” more of a voice in the judicial nominating process. In order to believe that, however, one must first believe that Iowa attorneys who select 50 percent of existing commissioners aren’t part of “the people.” It also begs the question why, if having more representative voices involved in the process is the goal, Republicans would remove the current requirement of Senate confirmation for political appointees.

In reality, the goal is provide more, undue influence to only a certain segment of “the people.”

This power grab has to do with a handful of the thousands of cases decided in Iowa courts each year. It is continued resentment regarding the Varnum decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa in 2009. Nevermind that the entire country is now operating under the same measure of equality, or that three competent and respected justices were ousted after out-of-state groups sunk millions into anti-retention campaigns against them.

It is ongoing conservative frustration that Iowa women can’t be forced to risk their lives for the possibility, however fleeting, of a child. And the court’s refusal to outlaw the option of abortion before a woman has knowledge of a pregnancy.

But while these “hot button” decisions may be the impetus for bad public policy, they aren’t the only items that come before our courts demanding objective scrutiny. They aren’t even the majority. Day in and out everyday Iowans come to the courthouse for help in disputes ranging from criminal violations to employment matters to landlord-tenant disagreements. Each of those Iowans has an expectation of impartiality the state has an obligation to meet.

That simply won’t be the case if Republicans plow forward with their legislative “fix.”

Just like 57 years ago, the most direct path to the voice of “the people” is through an amendment and the ballot box.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Feb. 23, 2019.