IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A well-connected Republican attorney has launched an effort to remove three members from the judicial nominating commission that will recommend finalists for key vacancies on the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
If successful, the challenge by Des Moines lawyer Bill Gustoff would sideline the panel's three most experienced attorneys from the deliberations to recommend replacements for outgoing Supreme Court Justice Daryl Hecht and Court of Appeals Chief Judge David Danilson.
The impact would tip the balance of power to the eight Republican non-lawyers who were appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and her predecessor to the 17-member panel. For each court vacancy, the commission will interview applicants and recommend three finalists from which Reynolds must choose to fill the seats.
At issue is when the commission terms of attorneys Connie Diekema of Des Moines, Martin Diaz of Swisher and Suzan Boden of Sioux City are due to end. All three were elected to the commission in a vote by attorneys to represent different congressional districts on the commission.
A longstanding state law says attorney members of the commission serve six-year terms that begin July 1 after elections are held in January. The Iowa Judicial Branch continues to follow that practice and believe the three terms expire June 30, 2019. They have been planning to participate in interviewing candidates and selecting finalists for the looming vacancies.
But in a letter sent Monday to State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio and obtained by The Associated Press, Gustoff argues that their terms actually expire Jan. 1 due to a conflicting law approved in 2008. That law changed the makeup of the commission to comply with upcoming redistricting and declared all existing terms would end Dec. 31, 2012.
Gustoff argues that means Diekema, Diaz and Boden started serving Jan. 1, 2013 and must be removed at the end of this month and replaced in new elections. He noted that Iowa code would allow the commission to function with their three spots vacant but said that scenario would be "unfortunate."
Gustoff asked Nuccio to respond by Friday "so that I can decide whether it is necessary to take further appropriate action to protect my rights, the rights of other members of the bar, and the integrity of this important process."
Gustoff is the treasurer of the Republican Party of Iowa, a member of the state party's central committee and the former law partner of acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker.
Iowa Judicial Branch spokesman Steve Davis said Gustoff's letter has been sent to Attorney General Tom Miller's office for a response.
Hecht is leaving the Iowa Supreme Court next week, after announcing last month he would resign in order to focus on battling skin cancer. Danilson has announced that he would retire effective Jan. 4. Both were appointed by Democratic governors, and their departures give Reynolds another chance to move Iowa's judiciary in a more conservative direction.
The stakes are high for the Supreme Court vacancy, which last year ruled 5-2 that abortion rights were protected under the state constitution in striking down a 72-hour waiting period for abortions. Reynolds, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, already replaced one of the justices who joined the majority opinion last year and Hecht will be the second.
The new justices might get to rule on the constitutionality of a law signed by Reynolds in May that is the nation's strictest abortion ban. The law outlaws all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy. It's on hold pending a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Planned Parenthood.