The Iowa Supreme Court’s Troubling Lack of Diversity

By Erin Becker, Student Writer

Early voting has finally begun in Iowa, but with the federal executive and legislative races overshadowing the rest of the ballot, many people have not even considered the state judicial retention votes farther down the ticket. For all of the emphasis that is placed on the makeup of the federal Supreme Court, especially this year, little has been said recently about the makeup of the Iowa Supreme Court and what that says about the state of our judiciary. Iowa voters used to elect Supreme Court justices outright, but that process was later changed to one of merit selection and retention. [1] When there is a judicial vacancy, candidates send in applications to a nonpartisan commission. After conducting interviews and reviewing each candidate’s qualifications, the commission forwards a list of three nominees to the governor, who appoints one person from that list. Appointed justices face retention elections during the first election after their first year in office, then again at the end of each of their eight-year terms. In those retention elections, the electorate simply votes yes or no on whether to keep that person in office.

     The Iowa Supreme Court is made up of seven justices, and currently, all seven justices are white males. In its history, only two women have served on the Iowa Supreme Court, and there has never been an African-American justice. [2] The makeup of the Iowa Supreme Court clearly does not come close to matching the demographics of the state’s population, yet the court must rule on issues that often disproportionately impact female or minority residents of the state. Diversity on the bench is essential for fair decision making and “is intimately linked to the American promise to provide equal justice for all.” [3] Justices who come from a variety of backgrounds are able to bring fresh perspectives to important issues that come before the court. When a state’s highest court completely lacks diversity, as is the case in Iowa, we not only miss out on important viewpoints, but the court also loses some degree of legitimacy as the diverse public’s confidence in the judiciary declines.

  Since it is so important to our system of justice, diversity on the bench should be considered throughout the merit selection and appointment process. Some people believe the Iowa Supreme Court’s diversity problem stems from the inadequate number of qualified women and minorities in the applicant pool. Others believe the problem lies in the fact that neither the commission nor the governor have made diversity a priority when choosing justices. In 2011, after three Iowa Supreme Court justices (including the only woman on the court) lost their retention elections, the process of appointing three new justices began. [4] Among the slate of nine nominees it sent to the governor, the commission included only one who was not a white male. That one was Iowa Law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, an accomplished legal scholar with an impressive record. The governor did not select Professor Onwuachi-Willig, choosing instead to ignore the issue of diversity and allow the Iowa Supreme Court to consist solely of white men.

     All of the members of the Iowa Supreme Court are qualified, but diversity on the bench is too important to be willfully ignored by the officials whose job it is to appoint justices to the court. If these officials do not feel there are enough qualified female or minority applicants, then they need to take steps to foster a more diverse applicant pool going forward. These officials should also consider how implicit bias may affect their evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of female and minority candidates’ applications. Finally, these officials should publicly commit to making diversity a priority during the merit selection and appointment process in the future.

[1] Iowa Official Register Chapter 3 – Judicial Branch (2015–2016), https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/Resources/Register/Chapter_3_Judicial_Br....

[2] Grant Rodgers, Report: Iowa Fails at Appointing Women, Minority Judges, Des Moines Register (June 24, 2016, 6:01 PM), http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-courts/2016/06/24/....

[3] Brennan Center for Justice, Improving Judicial Diversity (Mar. 3, 2010), http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/Improving_Judici....

[4] Luke Voelz, UI Prof Not Among 3 New Supreme Court Justices, Daily Iowan (Feb. 24, 2011, 7:20 AM), http://www.dailyiowan.com/2011/02/24/Metro/21619.html.