Iowa law requiring gender balance on judicial commissions struck down as unconstitutional

A state law requiring gender balance on Iowa's top judicial nominating commission may have been appropriate when approved in the 1980s but no longer passes constitutional muster and cannot be enforced, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

The lawsuit was spearheaded by lawyers from the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, who challenged the law governing the makeup of the commission that recommends to the governor candidates to fill vacancies on Iowa's appellate courts. By law, the governor appoints nine of the commission members while the remaining eight ― two from each Iowa congressional district ― are elected by the members of the Iowa Bar. The law requires each district elect two commissioners "of different genders."

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Pleasant Hill attorney and former legislator Charles Hurley and other plaintiffs, challenged that mandate as unconstitutional. Limiting the potential candidates for a vacancy on the commission to a single gender violates the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment, the complaint argued.

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The state, in court filings, responded that the law is justified by important government interests, most notably ensuring Iowa women are proportionately represented on the nominating commission.

Both sides asked the court for summary judgment, and on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled against the state, permanently enjoining it from enforcing its gender restriction.

Judge finds law has outlived justification

While Pacific Legal argued gender quotas are never constitutional, Rose found the original law served a legitimate purpose. Prior to the law's adoption in 1987, no woman had ever been elected to the state nominating commission, and "remedying past discrimination is an important government objective," Rose wrote.

More than 30 years later, though, Rose found the state has failed to prove the provision is justified by ongoing discrimination.

Based on evidence offered by the state, Rose conceded that "it is clear ... that the percentages of women in most judicial nominating commissions do not reflect the proportion of women in the general population." But she said it's difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison given the varying eligibility and selection criteria from state to state. And she noted that Iowa's state court administrator admitted in testimony he was not aware of any female lawyer who has faced barriers seeking election to the commission.

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"This is not to say that gender discrimination does not exist — it plainly does across the spectrum of jobs in this country — but the evidence presented to the court does not establish this fact in this commission, in this state, at this time," Rose wrote.

As for the state's other arguments, including that the inclusion of women improved the quality of the commission's deliberations and strengthens public confidence in its work, Rose found it "unclear" how the gender balance law furthers any of those interests. Without a clear connection to a current and compelling state objective, she said, the law cannot survive constitutional scrutiny.

Attorney: rule 'discriminated against IA citizens'

In a statement, Pacific Legal attorney Laura D'Agostino praised the decision, as well as the Iowa plaintiffs, several of whom were dropped from the case prior to the final ruling.

"We are extremely pleased with the court’s decision today. Our clients Rachel Raak Law, Micah Broeckmeier, and Charles Hurley are vindicated for their courage in standing up against this discriminatory statute," D'Agostino said. "The Judicial Nominating Commission is now prevented from discriminating against Iowa citizens. All Iowans should celebrate that result."

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Pacific Legal also has fought gender-balance rules in other states, including a successful challenge to a Minnesota law Rose cited in her decision.

"We are hopeful that the Iowa legislature takes this cue from the Court and repeals the state’s remaining gender balance laws. We are also hopeful that other states across the country take notice," D'Agostino said. "PLF has filed multiple lawsuits challenging race- and sex-based quotas on government boards and commissions. This opinion puts those, and others states on notice that that these types (of) board quotas are plainly unconstitutional."

Other Iowa laws could be affected

As D’Agostino noted, this isn't Iowa's only law requiring gender balance for state positions. Other provisions require a similar balance for elected members of the district nominating commissions, which recommend candidates for district judgeships, and that "no more than a simple majority" of the governor's commission appointees be of one gender.

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Hurley's lawsuit does not directly challenge those laws, and Rose's order only blocks the gender balance requirement for the state commission's elected members. Nonetheless, other state laws would be vulnerable to challenges on the same grounds.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed removing Iowa's gender balance requirement for state boards and commissions — something that Republican legislative leaders have said they are open to considering.

Reynolds made the recommendation Tuesday night in her annual Condition of the State address as part of a broader plan to shrink state government by eliminating 111 of Iowa's 256 boards and commissions and requiring every board to be reevaluated every five years.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, said in an interview last month that he is "totally comfortable with" eliminating the gender-balance requirement.

He said the state is having trouble finding qualified members for some commissions and that people shouldn’t assume the goal is to put more men on boards and commissions.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said in December that she can’t believe Republicans are talking about eliminating the gender-balance requirement.

“I think Iowans expect equal and fair representation on the decisions that are being made about their state,” she said. “And I don’t understand what this solves. I don’t understand what this does. I think it’s just shortsighted and frankly discriminatory to women because it’s no longer ensuring that women have equal representation on these boards.”

The Iowa Attorney General's Office, which defended the case, did not return a message seeking comment on the ruling Thursday. A spokesperson for the Judicial Branch declined to comment.

Staff writer Stephen Gruber-Miller contributed to this article.

William Morris covers courts for the Des Moines Register. He can be contacted at or 715-573-8166.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa judicial commission gender law blocked over 14th Amendment claim