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Judicial Selection and Retention

The objective of a sound judicial selection system is the nomination and appointment of the best qualified individuals who are available to be judges, in terms of such qualities as integrity, intelligence, industry, impartiality, education and experience.

Iowa Supreme Court Justice Harvey Uhlenhopp (1970–1986)

May 15, 1986.

Merit Selection

Iowa justices and judges are selected using the merit selection. Under the merit system, a commission composed of nonpartisan Iowans makes a study of the credentials of the individuals who are nominated for judicial office. The commission then nominates the individuals whom it finds best qualified and sends their names to the governor for final selection.

For supreme court justices and court of appeals judges, the state judicial nominating commission nominates three individuals. For district judges, district nominating commissions nominate two individuals. Merit selection was part of an Amendment to the Iowa Constitution in 1962. In Iowa, all judicial nominees must be a licensed Iowa attorney.

Judicial Retention Elections

In a retention election, voters decide whether a judge should be retained or removed from office. If a judge receives a majority of “yes” votes, the judge serves another full term. If a judge receives a majority of “no” votes, the judge is removed from office at the end of the year. Retention elections focus on the professional competency of Iowa’s judges.

Benefits of Merit Selection and Retention Elections

  • Curbs the influence of political parties and special interest groups in the selection of Iowa’s judges.

  • Emphasizes the selection of judges based upon their professional qualifications.

  • Gives voters the final say about who serves as a judge.

  • Is the most effective way to ensure fair and impartial courts.

Accountability of Iowa Judges

Merit selection and retention elections are designed to foster fair and impartial courts while maintaining judicial accountability through a series of checks on judicial power.

If a party in a case believes a judge made an error, the party may appeal to a higher court.

  • If citizens disagree with a court’s interpretion of a law, they may petition the legislature to amend the law and change the law’s effect in the future.

  • If citizens disagree with a court’s interpretation of the constitution, they have the ultimate power to amend the constitution to change its effect in the future.

  • If a person thinks a judge has behaved unethically, the person may ask the Judicial Qualifications Commission to investigate.

In these ways, courts are accountable to the laws, to the constitution, and to the people.

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