Rep. Steven Holt

Representative Steven Holt

Freedom Watch 2/14/19

The Case for Judicial Reform

Week 5

The current system used in Iowa to place judges and justices on the bench is a merit-based system commonly referred to as the “Missouri Plan.” Under this system, Iowa has 14 district court commissions and a state commission. These commissions select nominees to submit to the Governor to fill judicial vacancies.  For the Supreme Court, 3 nominees are given to the Governor; for district court vacancies, 2 nominees are advanced.  The Governor must select one of these nominees within 30 days of receiving it.  If the Governor does not make the selection within 30 days, the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court makes the selection.

This system has been in place since the early 1960s, when this model became popular in a number of states. Prior to this system, Iowa placed judges on the bench by direct election.  Direct election of judges fell out of favor as ethical issues related to judges having to fund raise and then hear cases in which donors to their campaigns were involved, began to arise.

The individuals on the commissions that make the recommendations to the Governor are selected for the commissions using a system in which the Governor chooses half, which must then be approved by a super-majority in the Senate, and by half being elected by attorney members of the bar in Iowa.

When the Missouri Plan was debated in 1962, there was concern that such a system would give too much power to “elite lawyers,” since attorneys would be electing other attorneys to these commissions with no oversight or accountability to the people. In fact, in order to get it passed, an escape clause was placed into law that required the plan to be used until 1973, but could be changed by the Legislature after that.

Several states that have used the Missouri Plan are now debating changes. Tennessee has totally moved away from this plan, and even Missouri is considering changes.  The legislation being considered in Iowa would give more voice to the people through their elected officials, regardless of political party.

Why is change necessary?  In the current system, attorneys are electing other attorneys with no oversight or accountability to the people.  It has also become clear that very few attorneys are participating in the process.  In 2018, over 7,000 lawyer members of the bar were eligible to vote for commissioners.  Only 18.45% of attorneys eligible to vote actually voted and participated in the process. This means that less than .05% of the people of Iowa, those being attorneys, had a voice in this part of the process.

The concerns about the current system do not stem from a specific case or court action, but rather from a belief that a tiny number of lawyers electing other lawyers to these commissions without oversight is inappropriate and does not represent the voice of the people.

Elected representatives of the people, from both political parties, accountable to the voters every 2 or 4 years, should appoint members to these commissions, not a tiny group of attorneys.  This gives greater voice to the people through their elected representatives and provides a measure of oversight that is non-existent in the present system, in which a few attorneys are electing other attorneys with no additional approval process for oversight. Contrast this with the Governor’s appointees, which in the present system must be approved by the Senate

The deciding vote and chair of these commissions is currently the senior judge or justice, and they are voting on who will join them on the court. This process should also be changed, because this creates the opportunity for undue influence by the judge or justice over other members of the commissions.  When the judge or justice is removed from the process and the Chair is appointed by other means, this lessens the possibility of inappropriate influence over attorneys who must argue cases before these judges and justices.

One of the arguments being made by attorneys who will lose a small measure of power should these changes be implemented, is that we are “politicizing” the process. Anyone who has observed or is involved with judicial selection knows it is already highly politicized. Case in point: in 2011, 3 justices had to be replaced on the Supreme Court. 9 nominees were advanced to Governor Branstad. Only one female was advanced; a liberal law professor who had never practiced law in Iowa and had been admitted to the bar on the day of her nomination.  This is inexplicable, given that there were highly capable female judges serving throughout Iowa’s court system at the time. Apparently, they were not advanced for purely political reasons, as those in the system attempted to force the Governor’s hand in the selection process.

The merit system is not changed in our proposals and attorneys remain a key part of the process.  Our bill requires that at least half of the commissioners must be attorneys, they just don’t get to vote one another on to the commissions, with only a tiny number of attorneys bothering to even participate in the process.

HSB 110 is a work in progress, and changes will no doubt be made as the committee process reveals ways it can be approved. The heart of this legislation is to give greater voice to the people through the elected representatives of both political parties.

The changes to the judicial nomination process being considered in HSB110 would result in greater transparency, greater accountability to the citizens of our state, improves the integrity of the system through a more public process, removes the potential of undue influence or pressure resulting from a Judge or Justice being Chair of a commission, all while maintaining a strong attorney presence and the merit system of selection.  Our system works best when the power resides with the people, as envisioned by our Founders.  HSB110 would return a measure of power to the people in the selection of judges and justices.

I am honored to serve as your State Representative.  You can call me at 712-269-4042 or email me at steven.holt@legis.iowa.gov.

Holt Supports $90 Million Funding Increase for Iowa Schools

February 11, 2019

This evening, Rep. Steve Holt (R-Denison) voted to provide Iowa school districts with an additional $89.3 million in new funding for the 2019-20 school year.  The legislation passed included a significant increase in general state aid as well as $7.8 million in targeted funding for rural schools to reduce disproportionally high transportation costs and $2.9 million in funding to reduce a long-standing inequity in the school funding formula by $5 per student.

In total, the funding package passed by the House will bring state investment in K-12 education to more than $3.3 billion annually, an increase of $865 million since the 2011-12 school year.  Over that same time, 3,100 new teachers have been hired to staff Iowa classrooms and the student-teacher ratio has decreased every year even while enrollment has grown.

School districts in House District 18 will receive an additional $935,686 in transportation funding for the 2019-20 school year.

“This K-12 funding package clearly demonstrates our commitment to Iowa schools,” said Holt.  “I will continue to make our local schools a priority and will look for additional ways we improve the educational experience for Iowa’s kids.”

 

Freedom Watch 2/7/19

Education, Reform & the Right of Free Speech

Week 4

As week 4 of the 2019 legislative session comes to an end, I can report that the House and Senate have reached agreement on a K-12 education funding package. HSB110, which would reform the judicial nominating process, passed sub-committee; HJR 3, which proposes to amend the Iowa Constitution by establishing 2nd Amendment rights also moved forward; and budget hearings continued as we work to make wise use of taxpayer money while meeting Iowa’s priorities. I have also assigned an important bill to sub-committee that seeks to protect one of our most sacred rights.

The funding package agreed to for K-12 education includes $89.3 million in new funding. $7.8 million is proposed to help reduce transportation costs for rural schools so more money can be kept in the classroom.  We have also agreed to $2.9 million to reduce a cost per pupil gap that has existed in the school formula since the 1970s. House Republicans have continued to make funding for K-12 schools a top priority, with an increase of over $765 million since 2011. Funding for schools has increased at nearly triple the rate of inflation, and we have passed reforms to give increased flexibility to our school districts. Education funding will top $3.3 billion in FY20. I believe we must continue to find ways to improve education that have nothing to do with funding.  We must continue to give more control of our schools to our local school boards and teachers and get government off their backs. Good citizenship and education begin in the home and must be continued in the classroom, as students learn American exceptionalism and the STEM skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.

As Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, I advanced HSB 110, which seeks to reform the judicial nomination process. Currently, commissions select nominees for District & Supreme Court vacancies and present them to the Governor, who must select from the commission’s recommendations. Half of the members of the commissions that make these recommendations are appointed by the Governor and must be approved by a super-majority of the Senate. The other half are selected by members of the bar, who elect other members of the bar with no additional oversight.

The goal is to bring more accountability to Iowa’s merit-based judicial selection process by placing the authority to select commissioners with the elected representatives of the people, from both political parties, as opposed to lawyers selecting other lawyers, with no oversight or accountability.

Attorneys would continue to be a vital part of the process, but they would no longer select one another for commissions without oversight. Why is this change important? Because it gives voice to the people through their elected representatives.  The process for selection of judges and justices will always be political, because that is how our system works. Lawyers have political beliefs, belong to political parties and no doubt vote for commissioners based on those beliefs. With this understanding the question becomes which method of selection for commissioners gives voice to the people? Unelected and unaccountable attorneys, or elected representatives of the people? I believe the voice of the people would be much greater were the selections to the commissions made by those elected by the people, and accountable to them every election cycle. This legislation will no doubt be amended and improved as it goes through the committee process and is a work in progress.  I welcome your thoughts and perspective.

HJR3 recognizes 2nd Amendment rights by amending the Iowa Constitution. It must pass two General Assemblies before going before the people for the final decision.  Iowa is one of only six states that does not have this sacred right enshrined in their constitutions, and Republicans believe this must be rectified as soon as possible.

Budget hearings have begun, as we seek to drill down and find ways to create efficiencies and save money. Today the Justice Systems Appropriations Committee I serve on heard from Attorney General Tom Miller. I have asked his office to provide me with detailed analysis on how much taxpayer money is being spent on the myriad of lawsuits he has joined with other states that do not always seem to represent Iowa’s best interests. Instead, these lawsuits often seem to be politically motivated, and Iowans’ hard-earned money should not be wasted in this way.

Finally, I have been made aware of accounts from students that free speech is under assault on college campuses in Iowa. I intend to meet with these students and hear their first-hand accounts. Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee will consider legislation to address this issue.

I am honored to serve as your State Representative.  You can call me at 712-269-4042 or email me at steven.holt@legis.iowa.gov.

Freedom Watch 1/24/19

Contests, Unborn Children & Education

Week 3

Week 3 in the Iowa House was highlighted by a decision in the contested election for House District 55, intense Judiciary Committee work and discussion on K-12 education funding. On a personal level, I contemplated the horror of New York and Virginia’s effort to legalize abortion all the way until birth and beyond.

The Election Contest Committee, of which I was Chair, reviewed the facts in the election contest and the arguments and evidence presented by both attorneys.  At issue was whether to count 29 absentee ballots that were received after Election Day in the House District 55 election.  The Republican, Michael Bergan, won the election against Democrat Kayla Koether by 9 votes. The contestant, Kayla Koether, believed the 29 late-arriving absentee ballots should be opened and counted. A careful study of the law and the facts in the case led the majority of the committee to conclude that the ballots did not meet the legal requirement to be counted, because they lacked a postmark or Intelligent Mail barcode, as is required in Iowa code 53.17. This requirement is important in determining that the ballots were placed in the mail prior to election day. To count these ballots would mean we were treating them differently than over 1,000 other absentee ballots across the state that were lawfully rejected because they did not meet the legal requirements. The full House voted to approve the Committee report and reject the contest, bringing the issue to an end.

In Judiciary we are moving forward on updates to Conservatorship and Guardianship laws; possible revisions to pet animal cruelty laws; criminal justice reforms; and discussions on the Governor’s initiative to restore felony voting rights once the debt to society has been paid.  I am also continuing to work on what I regard as one of our highest priorities this year: Judicial nomination reform that will give more voice to the people through their elected representatives, while providing judicial nominees that understand the role of the judiciary in interpreting the law as opposed to legislating from the bench. For those who value our representative democracy and the unique role each branch of government plays, this issue is critical.

I continue to work with other House members to find ways to protect our unborn children.  It is horrifying to see states moving to legalize abortion all the way up until birth, or even contemplating cutting the spinal cord during birth.  This is pure evil. It is also another compelling reason to ensure we have a judicial system that interprets the law without regard to political agendas. Unborn lives matter and we must continue to stand up and protect them.  The soul of our state and nation are at stake, as well as 12 children on average per day in Iowa lost forever to abortion.

2nd Amendment protections are also in work. Legislation protecting gun rights will likely move through the Public Safety Committee, and I am working with Rep. Windschitl and others to get this done.

Funding K-12 education is always an early priority in the House and this year is no exception. We have enacted numerous changes in the last several years to give greater flexibility to our schools in how they spend their funds, and we are hearing from superintendents that these changes have been a great help to them. This week it was reported that Iowa once again leads the nation in high school graduation rates, but much more needs to be done in ensuring we are fostering citizenship, patriotism and proficiency in skills that will meet the workforce needs of our state. We expect to set funding levels soon, while continuing to look for innovative ways to help districts stretch their dollars further.

I am honored to serve as your State Representative.  You can call me at 712-269-4042 or email me at steven.holt@legis.iowa.gov.

Freedom Watch 1/25/19

Judiciary Priorities & Reform

Week 2

Week 2 in the Iowa House was busy and productive. As Chair of the Judiciary Committee, I am focused on legislation that has begun moving through the committee process.  I am also working on Judicial Nomination Reform, the importance of which was brought into sharp focus recently with ethical questions as to how our court system is operating, amid increasing judicial activism from the bench.

Legislation has begun moving through the committee process.  The Judiciary Committee has many pieces of legislation to consider, and I will review each to determine if it is needed, if it respects the constitutional liberties of our citizens, and if it is an appropriate use of government authority. Government cannot and should not attempt to solve every problem, but where appropriate, government should act to protect our citizens and advance liberty. Some of my top priorities: strengthening child sexual abuse laws; reforms to our Conservatorship and Guardianship laws; revisions to pet animal cruelty laws; criminal justice reforms; the Governor’s initiative to restore felony voting rights once the debt to society has been paid; advancing the resolution to recognize 2nd Amendment rights in the Iowa Constitution; and protection of the unborn.  Also, at the top of the list is judicial nomination reform.

As I write this newsletter, Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano, for a second time, struck down portions of the Voter ID law the Legislature passed in 2017.  This legislation made it easy to vote but harder to cheat, and the changes were carefully constructed to pass constitutional muster. House Democrats opposed our efforts, and Judge Romano is married to the Director of the House Democrat Caucus staff.  I believe she should have recused herself from hearing this case based on a clear conflict of interest. This is only the latest in a growing list of concerns as to the conduct of some in our Judiciary.

Many consider the Judicial branch’s decision to extend commission member’s service by six months to allow them to select Supreme Court nominees for the current vacancy resulting from Justice Daryl Hecht’s retirement, to be unlawful. A 2008 state law requires three of these members to leave in January when their terms expired. The court used a different section of law to justify what appears to be a decision based on political expediency and their desire to have a particular form of judicial philosophy on the bench.

Republicans believe that judges are constitutionally obligated to interpret the law as written, as opposed to predisposing an outcome and then crafting a path to achieve a desired result. This is the conflict between interpretation vs. judicial activism. Often, what cannot be achieved the proper way in our representative democracy, which is through our elected representatives, is achieved through the court system and judicial activism, also known as “legislating from the bench.” Judicial activism subverts the democratic process, effectively transferring authority from elected officials to judges on the bench.

The current system used to appoint individuals to the commissions that provide nominees to the Governor for judicial and Supreme Court vacancies enables the Bar Association to place members on these commissions without any oversight or approval by the elected representatives of the people. Contrast this with the Governor’s selections for these commissions. They must be approved by a super-majority in the Senate. This is not a criticism of the Bar; it is a criticism of the system currently used.

I will work to establish a process that gives more voice to the people and provides candidates to the Governor that reflect her judicial philosophy of interpretation, not judicial activism. The process should provide nominees that reflect a governor’s judicial philosophy, be they Republican or Democrat. We will consider a number of options as we work to give more voice to the people in this process, through their elected representatives.

Upcoming Legislative Forums:

  • 1/26/19 10am Logan –  Logan Community Center
  • 2/9/19 10am Denison – Cronks Café
  • 2/16/19 10am Harlan – 1901 Hawkeye Ave

I am honored to serve as your State Representative.  You can call me at 712-269-4042 or email me at steven.holt@legis.iowa.gov.

Freedom Watch 1/14/19

The 88th General Assembly Begins

Week 1

The 88th General Assembly convened January 14th at 10 a.m. As I write this newsletter, I have just taken the Oath of Office. Raising my right hand, placing my left hand on the Bible, and pledging to defend the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions is just as profoundly meaningful for me today as it was when I first took a similar oath 43 years ago in first joining the U.S. Marine Corps. Thank you for the honor of serving.

 I have been in Des Moines since January 8th holding meetings on important issues and challenges as I prepare to assume the responsibilities as House Judiciary Chair. I want to speak with you today about what the priorities for 2019 will be for the House Republican caucus, as well as what my priorities will be as House Judiciary Chair.

The priorities of the House Republican caucus were arrived at through meetings with constituents, door knocking and talking with our friends and neighbors, combined with our own personal sense of what needs to get done. The priorities of the House Republican caucus for 2019 look like this: monitoring and continued improvement of Medicaid Managed Care; Medicaid Reform to improve the level of care, reduce fraud and ensure financial sustainability going forward; continued improvements in our mental health programs, including children’s mental health; extending the SAVE program for our schools; funding Future Ready Iowa to help build the skilled workforce we need to grow rural Iowa; continued efforts, as we did last year, to find ways on the state level to improve access and affordability to healthcare as we wait for the federal government to address this issue in the appropriate way; proper funding for K-12 education and our community colleges; and as always for House Republicans, a balanced sustainable budget that does not waste taxpayer money and promotes smaller, smarter government.

My priorities as the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee include: advancing the resolution recognizing the right to keep and bear arms in the Iowa Constitution; removing the  statute of limitations for sexual abuse crimes against children;  a close look at our whistleblower protections to see if they need to be strengthened; exploring the possibility of expanding the prisoner built housing program to help with the housing shortage in our district and in much of rural Iowa; what measures we might take to protect unborn life as we monitor pending Iowa Supreme Court rulings on the heartbeat bill that protected life once a heartbeat is detected; and finally judicial nomination reform.

The current system of judicial nomination that provides the Governor with the nominees that she must choose from for District Court and Supreme Court vacancies does not always produce candidates that reflect the judicial philosophy of interpretation as opposed to judicial activism. I will review options that would give more voice to the people through their elected representatives in the selection of District Court and Supreme Court justices.

This morning I arrived early at the State Capitol. The sun was only just beginning to rise, and our beautiful Capitol building was bathed in the new LED lighting system that was recently installed. I was struck by how truly blessed we are as Americans and as Iowans. Our beautiful Capitol, standing as a testament to our commitment to freedom and liberty. I was also struck by how truly blessed I am with the honor of walking in this building and serving as your elected representative. I am deeply grateful.

You can call me at 712-269-4042 or email me at steven.holt@legis.iowa.gov.

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