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Your 2020 ballot, explained: Judicial retention elections and constitutional convention

What are judicial retention elections? What does it take to have a constitutional convention? Local 5 breaks down these topics on your 2020 ballot.

DES MOINES, Iowa — The back of your Iowa ballot might make you scratch your head a little bit this year: you'll see questions on judicial retention and a constitutional convention

Both of these sections are important to how Iowa runs as a state, and both would require a majority of "yes" votes to pass.

Local 5 is breaking those down and explaining why you should know about them before marking your ballot.

A sample of your county ballot can be found by visiting your county auditor's website. Find their website by clicking/tapping here

Judicial Retention Elections

Iowa is one of 21 states that holds judicial retention elections. This type of election focuses on keeping judges impartial and fair as they serve their term behind the bench.

"It's really different than an ordinary vote," said Guy Cook, a Des Moines attorney and chair of the Iowa State Bar Association's Fair and Impartial Courts Committee

"It's really a question of whether the judge or justice still has the merits worthy of their appointment and retention," Cook said. 

Back in the 1962, an Amendment to the Iowa Constitution made it so judges aren't elected. Instead, they are appointed to their positions through a merit selection process. 

Cook said a committee of lawyers and governor-appointed lay people, or non-lawyers, review applications from people looking to be a judge.

The committee that selects justices and judges is the state judicial nominating commission. Their job is to select three nominees for supreme court or court of appeals judges to send to the governor. 

For district judges, the committee nominates two individuals. 

In Iowa, all judicial nominees must be a licensed Iowa attorney, according to the Iowa Judicial Branch. The committee is trusted to select nominees that are qualified for the position they are applying for. 

The governor has a final say in the appointment of a judge, Cook said. This is when retention elections come into play. 

"In Iowa's process of selecting judges, we include a mechanism by which judges can be retained or removed from the bench," said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University. 

Iowans have the final say in whether or not a justice or judge finishes their term.

Supreme court justices serve eight-year terms while appellate and district court judges serve six-year terms.

"After they're initially appointed, they will go up for retention in the first general election ballot after their appointment, and then from there on out, they will serve the normal term of office," Caufield explained. 

The main point of these elections is to hold Iowa justices and judges accountable. 

"It's about maintaining the the fair and impartial courts that we have in Iowa that are routinely recognized as one of the top five in the country because of the neutrality and impartiality and fairness that our judges and justices exhibit," Cook said. 

Cook pointed to Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. 

Three judges were removed from the bench following the historic decision: Chief Justice Marsha K. Ternus, Justice Michael J. Streit and Justice David L. Baker.

"It didn't change the decision, and that's an important fact," Cook noted. "Voting to retain or not retain a judge doesn't change a decision that a court or a judge has made."

"You know, it's a really very simple test, frankly, it's hard for people to appreciate the distinction between voting for politicians and voting for judges." 

Cook and Caufield agree that taking the politics out of a judicial selection is critical.

Both experts believe that judges running on a political platform can cause ethical problems in the long term. 

"I don't want to imply that all elected judges are unfit for office. That's simply not the case," Caufield said. "But we are more likely to see ethical complaints, ethical concerns and judges who reach the bench with very little experience."

This merit system also takes the contention out of elections. 

"We all want a referee, a judge a justice, who's making a decision not to favor one side or the other," Cook said. "A partisan election puts at risk, that neutrality, that fairness that we all want."

"What if you have a decision that needs to come before the court and the other side is given a lot of money to the judge in the judges reelection efforts? That's problematic. That's going to give you some anxiety as to whether or not you're going to get a fair shake."

Iowans heading to the polls or filling out their absentee ballots should look into the judges and justices that serve their communities, Cook said. Judicial surveys are released every year for Iowans to check on them. 

Cook said judicialfact.org is the best place for voters to look at those ratings and decided whether or not a judge is right for them. 

The document below also details short biographies on Iowa's judges and justices as well as frequently asked questions about the court system.

A question to hold a constitutional convention

"Shall there be a convention to revise the Constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?" 

That is the last question listed on the Polk County sample ballot for the general election, and it's going to show up on every Iowan's ballot this year.

"Good government reforms that went into effect in the 1960's among them a requirement that this would appear on the ballot every 10 years," Caufield said. 

The question has been on the ballot since 1970. It's been 163 years since Iowa had a constitutional convention, and that's when the current constitution came to be.  

The point of this question is to allow voters to go around politicians to revise the Constitution. 

"If the people of Iowa believe that there are pieces of the Constitution in need of revision, or if people believe that there's something that we should be adding, you know, is of such great importance that it should be added to the Constitution, then this is a mechanism by which they can do that and kind of go around the political elites," Caufield explained.

Normally, amendments are passed through the Iowa House and Senate in two consecutive General Assemblies. The amendment needs to be published prior to the election of the second General Assembly in order to be voted on at the next election. 

So, why haven't Iowans decided to circumvent our elected officials? 

"To start that process requires a vote of the people, and many people are very reluctant to open that door because the Constitution that we have has served us well all these years," Cook said. 

"It has to be a really important question where there's broad support, I think, before there would be overwhelming support. So that's why it's routinely rejected."

Caufield agreed.

"If there were widespread public conversation and some sort of activism around the need to develop a constitutional convention, then I feel like, you know, voters may respond to that," Caufield said. "I think most voters are, by nature, disinclined to disrupt the system unless they have a specific reason to do it."

A decision to have a convention doesn't mean an amendment is already made to go into the Constitution. 

"It's the first step in the process, not the final step," Caufield said. "If a proposed revision comes out of the convention, it does have to be approved by the voters of Iowa."

For more information on voting in 2020, click here or visit Local 5's YouTube channel.