You surely missed it—because the mainstream press said nothing about it—but on the last night of the legislative session, when they hoped no one was watching, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls and his Democrat colleagues played a game of pure partisan politics on judicial selection, and they played it badly.
Wahls and every single one of his fellow Senate Democrats voted no on the confirmation of University of Iowa law professor Derek Muller to serve on the state judicial nominating commission, the group that helps pick Iowa’s supreme court justices. Because confirmation requires a two-thirds vote, Muller’s confirmation failed.
Muller, a nationally recognized scholar on election law, is arguably the most qualified person to have been nominated to the judicial committee. Senator Brad Zaun, who managed Muller’s confirmation vote, said that he was certainly the most qualified he has ever seen. So why did Democrats vote him down?
They refused to say. Zaun asked Wahls that very question on the floor, and all Wahls could manage to say was: “It was a mutually agreed upon caucus decision that we discussed earlier.” (The discussion starts at the 11:14:50 mark of this video.)
Confused by Wahls’ strange non-answer, Zaun asked again, and Wahls simply repeated, “it was a mutually agreed-upon decision that we talked about in caucus.”
“This is an incredible candidate,” Zaun said, “and I think he deserves to know why you are going to vote him down.”
Looking like he desperately wanted to be somewhere else, Wahls ended the conversation, saying, “I don’t have anything else to add at this point.”
But Zaun had more. He read Muller’s lengthy and impressive resume, and he read a glowing letter of recommendation from Iowa Law dean Kevin Washburn, who served on President Biden’s transition team and as a confirmed appointee in the Obama Administration. The letter, posted in full below, says that “Professor Muller is smart, productive, hard-working and collegial. He is thoughtful in interacting with his colleagues and widely respected here. Professor Muller has high moral character, and he brings no ideological agenda to the routine work of the College of Law. He works for good outcomes.” With that, Washburn urged Muller’s “swift confirmation.”
Although Wahls wouldn’t provide a reason for voting against Muller (has anyone ever seen such a thing?) sources say that Senate Democrats were using their vote to punish Muller for serving as a representative of the Miller-Meeks campaign in the Johnson County recount. In other words: pure partisan politics.
Professor Todd Pettys, another respected Iowa law professor who served alongside Muller on that recount board, and who was on the board at the urging of Rita Hart’s campaign, had this to say about Senate Democrats’ decision to vote down Muller. Shortly after another law school colleague, Sheldon Kurtz replied to Pettys.
This is shocking. That law professor is outstanding. Inquiries shall be made.
— Sheldon (“Shelly”) Kurtz (@SheldonKurtz) May 21, 2021
Muller also works with law professor Christina Bohannan, who is a representative in the Iowa House. Iowa Field Report asked for her comment. She wouldn’t give one.
Iowa Field Report also reached out to the Iowa State Bar Association, which prides itself on fighting to keep politics out of judicial selection. The Bar’s communications director, Melissa Higgins, said that she “did not follow this vote”, but “checked with our lobbyists who said they weren’t involved in this issue other than monitoring the vote” “At this point,” she said, “we don’t have any specific comment.” That was a few weeks ago. The Bar Association still hasn’t said anything.
Maybe because Muller is a Republican?
The vote against Muller comes after last year’s vote against another highly qualified nominee, Nicole Crain. Democrats acknowledged that Crain was a good person, but their excuse that time (at least they gave one) was that Crain was a lobbyist (even though she wasn’t any longer). They made no mention of the fact that she had significant experience and expertise selecting judges as a member of a district court nominating commission. And the Bar Association, which employs its own team of lobbyists, said nothing then either. Apparently, the “no-politics” thing just goes one way with Iowa’s largest lawyer special-interest group.
Talk around the Capitol is that if Wahls and Democrats won’t even explain why they are taking down a highly qualified nominee, then maybe the legislature should just do away with confirmation. Or maybe, since the Bar Association doesn’t seem to care when the Governor’s nominees go down for purely partisan reasons, the members of the judicial nominating commission who are elected by the Bar should also face a confirmation vote. (They currently do not.) Or maybe judicial selection needs to be revamped altogether.
Iowa Field Report has it on good authority that “All options are on the table.”
Here is the letter from Dean Kevin Washburn in Support of Derek Muller: