Iowa judges up for retention get high marks from state bar association


HR King
May 29, 2001
The Iowa State Bar Association has released the results of an evaluation conducted every two years of judges across the state, which provides guidance to voters as they decide Nov. 8 whether the judges in each district should remain on the bench.

Sixty-one associate and district judges and four appellate judges are up for retention this year. Of those, seven district judges and four associate district judges are from the 6th Judicial District — Linn, Benton, Johnson, Jones, Iowa and Tama counties.

According to the bar’s judicial performance review, the bar members — lawyers — gave this district’s 11 judges high enough ratings to be retained. Two of the judges — associate district judges Valerie Clay and Jason Burns — received retention percentages of 100 percent.


Clay was appointed to the bench last year and Burns in 2015. Both were former assistant Linn County attorneys before being appointed.

The other judges in this district received 84 to 96 percent ratings.

Historically, the judges usually receive high marks, which is to be expected because they are thoroughly vetted by lay people and lawyers on the judicial nominating commissions, said Tim Semelroth, a Cedar Rapids lawyer and former member of a district nominating commission.

The evaluation is “a responsibility lawyers take seriously,” Semelroth said. “It’s not a Google review. There is a lot of work that goes into these. They focus on key traits — important traits for a judge to have. It’s not a popularity contest.”

Semelroth also pointed out that attorneys across the state also approached this evaluation with more care after same-sex marriage was legalized in 2009. Three Iowa Supreme Court justices — David Baker, Marsha Ternus and Michael Streit — up for retention the following year were removed by voters for making that decision.

The lawyers evaluate the judges on various issues, including knowledge of the law, temperament, communication skills, timeliness of rulings, clarity and quality of written opinions and impartiality. They are rated on a scale of 1 — very poor — to 5 — excellent.

In this district, Chief Judge Lars Anderson rated the highest, 4.6, for knowledge and application of the law. Clay and Burns both rated 4.5 in that category.

Semelroth said the judges also are rated on their demeanor, which is important, because a judge should not only treat the lawyers fairly and respectfully but also the citizens who come before them.

Under the demeanor portion of the evaluation, the judges also are rated on whether they decide cases on the basis of law and fact without being affected by outside influence; treat people equally regardless of race, gender, age, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or disability; and demonstrate awareness of the influence of implicit bias.

Judge Kevin McKeever rated the highest, 4.65, for his demeanor with lawyers, litigants and court personnel.

“A vast majority of the population don’t know or have any contact with the judges, so it’s extremely helpful for the voters to have this evaluation,” Semelroth said.

This year, the performance evaluation was electronically sent in September to 5,688 active bar members, and 1,118 completed it, according to the bar association.

In the 6th District, 117 to 152 lawyers participated in the evaluation of the 11 judges. Each judge had a different number of respondents.

Semelroth said a lower number of respondents doesn’t mean the evaluation wasn’t a priority because not all bar members are litigators that regularly go before the judges. The only lawyers allowed to participate in the evaluation are ones who have had sufficient contact and experience with a judge.

According to the evaluation report, the lawyers should have firsthand experience with a judge that provides them with a professional basis to evaluate a judge’s performance; or have practiced before the judge or were reasonably familiar with the judge’s work; or were familiar with the judge’s opinions — as in the appellate courts.

The Iowa Judicial Branch also provides an Iowa Voter’s Judicial Directory each election year that contains biographies on each judge up for retention. The directory includes information about each judge’s background, education, career and professional activities.

The directory also includes information about the retention process.

It explains how a 1962 Iowa constitutional amendment replaced a partisan process of electing judges with a nonpartisan, merit-based process.

A nonpartisan commission now vets the applicants and then forwards three nominees to the governor, who appoints one.

Every judge is up for retention at the next general election after serving a full year. After that, they appear on the ballot near the end of each term. If a judge receives a majority of “yes” votes, he or she stays on the bench.


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