A top administrator in the state’s court system expects the Iowa Supreme Court to be at full strength by early April, as three new members take their places on the court.

Earlier this afternoon Governor Branstad appointed three men to fill the three openings on the court that were created when Iowa voters tossed three Supreme Court justices off the bench in last year’s retention election.  

“We’re at the end of a long road that started, unfortunately, on November the 2nd,” State Court Administrator David Boyd says. “It will be good to have a full court in place so that we can hopefully within a reasonable amount of time which I expect will still be months yet, but that we can get back to a normal workflow.”

Branstad appointed 51-year-old Thomas Waterman, an attorney from Pleasant Valley; 53-year-old Edward Mansfield of Des Moines, a member of the Iowa Court of Appeals; and 58-year-old Bruce Zager of Waterloo, a district court judg, to the state’s highest court. Boyd hasn’t talked with any of the three, but he says since two of the three are judges, the transition may be easier.

“Once Judge Mansfield gets whatever he has under submission with the Court of Appeals wrapped up, Judge Zager is a very good trial judge up in Waterloo and is usually very current with his work as well, so I suspect it won’t take us very long to get people at least on board,” Boyd says. “And then it’s a question of getting them up to speed.”

The three men Branstad selected are required to submit paperwork to the Secretary of State’s office within 10 days and once that’s complete, they’re officially a member of the state’s highest court although it will likely be slightly longer before each starts their tenure on the Iowa Supreme Court. 

“Under our court rules, they have 30 days,” Boyd says. “And in the case of Mr. Waterman, now, under the code of judicial conduct, he has to limit his appearances in court for the next 30 days as he gets out of practice.” 

Voter outrage over the court’s 2009 ruling which paved the way for gay marriage led to the defeat of the three previous justices in the 2010 retention election. Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit left the court at the end of December. Boyd, the state court administrator, says time tends to heal all wounds, and the judicial branch is ready to move on. 

“The judicial branch as a whole, the court specifically, have been going through something similar to a grieving process since November,” Boyd says. “And I think that the court is very anxious to have the three new members there so they’ll be at full strenghth and they can get back to doing their job.”

But is this chapter in the court’s history really over?  The three justices Branstad has just appointed will be up for a retention vote in 2012 along with current Justice David Wiggins. Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton thinks the lingering issue of gay marriage might influence voters next year as well.

“I can’t answer that. I think it’s too soon,” McKinley says.  “…I think there’s a cloud over the court’s action.” 

And Senator Kent Sorenson, a Republican from Indianola who has been a leading critic of the court’s gay marriage ruling, wants to change the process for selecting future justices.

“I think the system’s broke,” Sorenson says. “I think that we should reevaluate how we appoint (the justices) so the governor has more authority over who he’s going to pick.”

Sorenson favors getting rid of the state’s 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission, which submitted a slate of nominees to Branstad, and giving Iowa’s governors the power to choose whomever they wish, just as the president does, with a confirmation vote in the senate. 

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines who is openly gay, suggests having the court at full strength closes this chapter in the court’s history.

“I hope that Iowans recognize how disruptive taking individuals off the courts are and when this issue is brought to voters again, as I’m sure it will be, that voters will remember this period of instability,” McCoy says.

McCoy, though, does say he is disappointed Branstad did not choose to appoint a woman to the court.  The Judicial Nominating Commission submitted the name of just one woman among the nine candidates for the open slots on the Supreme Court.