Drake Law School Dean Allan Vestal and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor were among four panelists who defended Iowa’s merit system of selecting judges and warned against injecting politics into the court system during a discussion Wednesday, Sept. 8, at the Hotel Fort Des Moines.
Approximately 500 business, labor and civic leaders attended the event. Justice O’Connor and Dean Vestal were invited to participate by the group Iowans for Fair and Impartial Courts.
“We have to address the pressures that are being applied to that one safe place, the courtroom,” O’Connor said, according to an article posted on IowaPolitics.com. “We have to have a place where judges are not subject to outright retaliation for their judicial decisions. That’s the concept.”
Vestal’s role on the panel was to provide an Iowa legal perspective on how our Constitution achieves the laudable end identified by Justice O’Connor and the other panelists, a non-politicized judiciary, and specifically a commentary on the judicial retention vote mechanism. The other panelists were Mike Petro of the Center for Economic Development in Washington, D.C.; and Jan Laue, secretary-treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
In approaching this matter, Vestal said he found it helpful to remember the admonition of Chief Justice Warren Burger, who said: “Judges . . . rule on the basis of law, not public opinion, and they should be totally indifferent to pressures of the times.”
Vestal added that Iowa’s system has endured because the judicial retention vote is “an extraordinary and limited tool to remove unfit judges, not a forum to overturn decisions of the court.” He added: “The fitness determination is not a proxy to relitigate individual cases or to bring pressure upon the courts as to future cases.”
A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Vestal concluded his remarks by saying, “In the final analysis, I have to believe that Iowans will reject any effort to undermine the Constitutional judicial merit selection system and politicize our courts. That isn’t what Iowans do, or should accept; not at our best. Iowans understand the importance of having a fair and impartial system of justice. We have a historic commitment to due process of law, and to equal protection. We believe in fairness, in playing by the rules.
“Perhaps most importantly, he added,” this attempt to subvert by misdirection the judicial retention vote isn’t who we are. Iowans listen to and respect one another. We reason with people with whom we disagree. And we seek to do the right thing, as our parents and grandparents did the right thing in 1962 when they established the Constitutional judicial merit selection system.”