A county GOP chairperson wants Iowa District Court Judge Rustin Davenport impeached because she disagrees with the five-year suspended prison sentence he imposed in a sexual assault case involving a toddler. She says it is “time to remove the liberal judges.” Before going any further, it is important to note that in suspending the sentence Judge Davenport followed the recommendations of pre-sentencing investigators and the prosecuting attorney.
This sort of too-quick reaction to an unpopular judicial decision seems to have become more common but remains as uninformed and misguided as ever. After receiving the suggestion that Judge Davenport be impeached, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, resisted the temptation to jump on the bandwagon. She appropriately responded, "There hasn't been a judicial impeachment during my time in the Legislature, so I need to know how the process works. It certainly seems like people have serious concerns so we won't take this situation lightly. We will review this matter and determine if it warrants further action.”
Chapter 68.1 of the Iowa Code provides that “An impeachment is a written accusation against the governor, or a judicial officer, or other state officer, by the house of representatives before the senate, of a misdemeanor or malfeasance in office.” Impeachment is rightfully reserved for actions that are corrupt or illegal. In making decisions, judges are sworn to follow the law, not public opinion.
A judicial decision issued pursuant to a judge’s authority and discretion cannot be a misdemeanor or malfeasance. No misdemeanor has been committed, and there is no malfeasance because the judge had clear authority to make the ruling. Every judge makes thousands of decisions in his or her career. There will always be decisions on which even a majority of citizens will disagree. That is not cause for impeachment. In the long history of our great nation, no state or federal judge has ever been removed through impeachment for making an unpopular decision.
Despite the country’s unblemished record of never impeaching a judge for an unpopular decision, threats to impeach carry great danger. Such threats put pressure on judges to decide cases based not on the law, but out of fear of losing their jobs. This kind of interference risks politicizing the courts, undermines fair and impartial decision making, and damages public confidence in our system of justice. And it weakens the judicial branch in its constitutional role as a “check and balance” against the power of the legislative and executive branches.
We need judges of high integrity who can make difficult and controversial decisions without being threatened with impeachment.
Judge Davenport has served as a district court judge for eight years. The lawyers in his district highly respect him. They have had Judge Davenport hear their cases and make decisions that result in someone winning and someone losing, but over 90 percent of the lawyers polled in his district highly approve of his rulings, his scholarship, his demeanor, and how he treats people in his courtroom.
In this instance, after reviewing a pre-sentence investigation and hearing the recommendation of the prosecuting attorney, Judge Davenport ruled, rightly or wrongly, as they suggested. Rightly or wrongly, his decision in no way provides a basis for impeachment.
This is not the occasion for Iowa to become the first state to impeach a judge for making an unpopular decision.
Steve Eckley is president of the Iowa State Bar Association.