Iowa House committee chair seeks investigation of judge
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The chairman of the Iowa House Judiciary Committee said Tuesday that he’s working to launch an investigation of a state court judge who was accused of trying to rig a judicial nomination to get a favored candidate appointed to the bench.
If the investigation proceeds, as expected, it would apparently be the first time in decades that a legislative committee exercised such oversight power to investigate the judicial branch.
Republican Rep. Steven Holt said he will ask the full House to pass a resolution that would grant his committee the right to subpoena people and access documents. It’s part of an effort to learn why Gov. Kim Reynolds took the unusual step last October of rejecting two nominees for the open judgeship.
Judge Kurt Stoebe was then chairman of the District 2b Judicial Nominating Commission, which covers several counties in northern Iowa. Some commission members accused him of making inappropriate and unprofessional comments about certain nominees, of falsely claiming that a nominee had withdrawn from consideration, and of unfairly favoring one nominee over others during discussions and interviews.
Reynolds found that Stoebe’s alleged actions tainted the process and she rejected the nominees and ordered the commission to start over for only the second time in history. The commission ended up recommending the same two finalists and Reynolds appointed district Associate Judge Derek Johnson to the bench in December.
The judicial branch said in November that Stoebe had agreed to step down as chairman of future nominating commissions, though it wasn’t clear if any further disciplinary action was taken. In its statement, the judicial branch said the Iowa Supreme Court can’t discipline a judge without first receiving a public report from the Iowa Judicial Qualifications Commission after an investigation.
Steve Davis, a judicial branch spokesman, said the commission’s evaluation and investigation process is confidential. The only thing made public is whether the commission makes a recommendation to the Supreme Court. No known recommendation has been made.
Stoebe didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Davis said he would have no further comment.
Holt said he and others have been unable to obtain more information about whether the judicial branch further investigated the matter or considered other disciplinary action, so he is pursuing his investigation to find out whether the allegations are true.
“If indeed a judge is willing to commit these acts in order to advance a favored candidate, including lying about one of the candidates withdrawing their name from consideration, how can an attorney or a citizen come before this judge and have faith in the integrity of the process?” he said.
A subpoena and a contempt citation for anyone who refuses to comply require a vote of the committee and the signature of Holt and Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley. Anyone refusing to comply could be jailed if the House votes to hold them in contempt and take that further step, Holt said.
Holt declined to say what action might be taken if the investigation affirms the allegations. He expressed confidence that lawmakers have the authority to act as a check on the judicial branch because the Iowa Constitution and state code give the Legislature the power to impeach and remove judges and other state officers for misdemeanors and malfeasance.
Holt also said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow legislators to view judicial branch investigative documents with the requirement they are kept confidential.