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Iowa court system to track deadlines for judge appointments

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Iowa Judicial Branch has started tracking legal deadlines for judge appointments amid questions over whether Gov. Kim Reynolds made two picks on time, a spokesman said Thursday.

The Iowa Constitution gives the governor 30 days to appoint a judge once the names of finalists have been submitted by a nominating commission. After that, the authority to make the selection falls to the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The once obscure requirement has come into focus after Bleeding Heartland, a liberal blog, reported that Reynolds informed Judge Jason Besler of his appointment in June days after the deadline. An attorney has since filed a complaint alleging that Besler, who is already hearing criminal and civil cases, is unlawfully holding office and should potentially be removed.

Reynolds has said that she verbally picked Besler before the deadline by telling an aide but failed to call Besler or document the selection for days because she was busy with other matters. The courts are expected to determine whether that’s legally sufficient. Chief Justice Mark Cady says the dispute has created a difficult situation for Besler and litigants in his courtroom, with no easy solution.

Now questions are being raised about whether Reynolds’ June 21 appointment of Judge Michael Jacobsen complied with the 30-day deadline.

Members of a nominating commission, including the governor’s father, signed a letter addressed to Reynolds 35 days earlier, on May 17, submitting the names of Jacobsen and another attorney for the vacancy, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press. If the clock started then, Jacobsen’s appointment would have come too late and would be open to challenge.

But court spokesman Steve Davis said the letter wasn’t sent that day and never actually made it to the governor. The commission chairwoman, Judge Martha Mertz, waited until May 22 to try to email the letter to the governor’s office but it bounced back, he said.

Another email she sent with information about the finalists on May 22 went through. Davis and Mertz haven’t responded to questions about the reason for the five-day delay. Jacobsen, the Jasper County Attorney, was appointed 30 days later to the bench in District 5A, which covers several counties in central Iowa.

Reynolds’ chief of staff, Ryan Koopmans, told the state court administrator in a May 22 email that he hadn’t “officially seen the names” for the vacancy but was aware they should have been picked days earlier. The administrator said he would inquire with Mertz, who sent them hours later.

The nominees’ identities were spreading by then. A public defender had written the governor’s office several hours earlier saying he was aware of Jacobsen’s nomination and asking how to express his support.

Davis said the court system has begun tracking the dates that nominations are considered submitted to the governor, which it didn’t do previously, given “the recent issues surrounding judicial appointments.” He said the system provides training on best practices to commissioners, but they are ultimately independent from all three branches of government.

The process for filling Jacobsen’s judgeship had been under scrutiny earlier, after the governor quietly appointed her father, Charles Strawn, to the nominating commission in April.

Some critics have called Strawn’s appointment an unusual case of nepotism, but Iowa’s anti-nepotism laws don’t apply to unpaid positions. Reynolds defended the appointment, saying her father “loves the state and wanted to volunteer and give back” like others she appoints to state boards.

Strawn and other commissioners interviewed candidates May 17 and signed the letter to the governor that day.

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