Regular readers of Gavel Grab are familiar with Iowa’s turbulent judicial retention (yes-or-no) elections in recent years. In 2010, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were ousted in retaliation for a controversial marriage ruling. In 2012, a similar ouster effort against a fourth justice was turned back, and the justice was retained.
For those less familiar with this history, the Talking Points Memo blog recaps much of it in fixing a spotlight on a more recent, related event: The Family Leader group posted last month an attack on Polk County District Judge Karen Romano, saying she apparently “has not learned a lesson” from” the 2010 election (see Gavel Grab). The Family Leader and some outside groups sought the justices’ removal then.
Judge Romano recently stirred controversy for some when she stayed a new Iowa Board of Medicine rule adopted to regulate medication abortions.
Talking Points Memo writer Andy Kopsa sees in Iowa — and other states — a growing threat to fair and impartial courts through retention election ouster efforts driven by special interests for political reasons: Read more
A legislative proposal to slash by 85 percent the salaries of four Iowa Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab) is punitive and reflects an effort to intimidate judges, Justice at Stake said on Thursday.
“This proposal to impose drastic, punitive pay cuts on four Iowa justices can be viewed only one way: as bullying by state legislators determined to intimidate the state’s justice system into bowing to political pressure,” warned Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, in a statement.
“It’s outrageous that sitting judges who do their duty and decide cases based on the law and the state constitution should have to fear political reprisal. This isn’t the way the American justice system works.”
In Iowa and Florida, where high-profile judicial retention contests are in their final days, newspaper editorials have warned that ouster advocates risk undermining impartial courts and judicial independence.
A Des Moines Register editorial pointed out that a campaign to unseat state Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins over a controversial marriage ruling is part of an effort by social conservatives to remove every justice who joined the unanimous ruling under the Iowa Constitution. “It’s time to end this targeting of judges,” the headline declared, and the editorial stated:
“So while [Wiggins critics] want voters to think this is about one member of the court, it is actually part of a broader strategy to intimidate judges and undermine judicial independence in Iowa. And it should end this year. Voters should send the signal that more than enough has been done already to destroy careers of judges — not because they are unfit but because some people do not agree with a decision of the court.
“Firing judges is especially troublesome when individual liberties are at stake. Protecting the rights of unpopular minorities from the tyranny of the majority is the foundation of our nation’s Bill of Rights. Some things must be off-limits from a majority vote, chief among them protections for religious, racial and other minorities.” Read more
A forceful coalition has worked to defend Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, the target of an ouster campaign. The outlook this year is different from 2010, when three fellow justices were unseated over a controversial marriage ruling, a New York Times article said.
The historic sweep in 2010 “was a wake-up call for all of us,” Cynthia C. Moser, the president of the Iowa State Bar Association, told the newspaper. The three jurists were removed in a retention (yes-or-no) election over a unanimous court ruling that permitted same-sex couples to marry.
The article recounted efforts that have been mentioned in Gavel Grab: The bar association mounted a pro-Wiggins bus tour that countered one launched by his foes; the Justice Not Politics coalition has worked to get individual voters to back the judge’s retention; and One Iowa, advocating for the rights of same-sex couples to marry, has sent out mail and called voters.
The Times article was headlined, “Iowa Justice Who Ruled for Gay Marriage Faces Test That Peers Failed.”
An Associated Press article about the anti-retention drive took a different approach. Justice Wiggins’s backers “are hoping that a low-key campaign stressing Iowa’s history of equality will convince voters to reject a conservative effort to oust him for approving same-sex marriage,” the AP reported.
The National Organization for Marriage, which has already spent thousands to help remove Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins in November, is sponsoring an anti-Wiggins ad.
The ad is available from the website of Iowans for Freedom, a social conservative group targeting the justice.
A pro-retention website, mounted as part of a counter-offensive, is paid for by a group called Justice Not Politics Action.
The National Organization for Marriage ad refers to Iowa’s 2010 retention election, when voters dumped three state Supreme Court justices over a court decision that permitted same-sex couples to marry. NOM spent heavily in support of that ouster drive. The new ad states:
“Iowa voters made history last election, holding activist supreme court judges accountable for ignoring our will and imposing gay marriage. Now we must hold David Wiggins accountable for redefining marriage and legislating from the bench.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who won the first-in-the-nation Iowa GOP presidential caucuses, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (photo at left) will join the bus tour, organized by activists critical of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that permitted same-sex couples to marry.
A Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier article quoted Santorum (photo at right) as saying, “The judiciary’s usurpation of authority in recent years is completely unacceptable.” He added, “It is obviously clear the people’s Constitution gives the judicial branch the least power, and yet these appointed judges continuously legislate from the bench whether it is gay marriage in Iowa, collective bargaining in Wisconsin, or resulting in the death of millions of lives caused by the opinion of Roe v. Wade.”
Defenders of fair and impartial courts are working to counter the ouster drive. Justice Wigginis is facing a retention election vote in November.
“Iowa Democrats, Republicans and independents need to stand together to prevent out-of-state special interest groups from intimidating our judges by threatening to spend millions to oust them,” said Sally Pederson, former Iowa lieutenant governor and chairwoman of Justice Not Politics Action (see Gavel Grab). “Voting yes for retention on the back of your ballot is a vote to protect our courts, and to stop the groups trying to intimidate judges.”
An editorial in the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Daily Nonpareil applauded the Iowa Supreme Court for taking the right approach and ruling based on its interpretation of the Iowa Constitution, not on popular opinion, in 2009. The court declared unanimously then that under the Iowa Constitution, same-sex couples had the same right to marry as different-sex couples.
Three justices up for retention in 2010 were removed afterward, and a fourth, Justice David Wiggins, is targeted by Republicans and a conservative group this year. All had joined the opinion.
The newspaper editorial voiced concern that some legal experts worry that the low-key approach to retention taken so far by Justice Wiggins could fail in the face of a well-funded ouster campaign.
“It’s unfortunate that advocates of an independent judiciary, something this state and the nation need, fear defeat unless justices defend themselves,” the editorial said. Read more
Three former Iowa justices, swept from the state Supreme Court over a controversial same-sex marriage decision, were to receive Profile in Courage awards from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation on Monday.
The award presentation also highlights the perils of the politicizing of the judiciary, according to an Associated Press article. The three are former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former justices David Baker and Michael Streit, all removed from the high court in 2010. In that retention election, out-of-state groups played a major role in funding the successful ouster drive, mounted in retaliation over a unanimous ruling that permitted same-sex marriages (photo was from the campaign).
“The three judges are interesting and courageous on many levels,” said Caroline Kennedy, the late president’s daughter, who heads the foundation. “Like many of the people who get this award, they don’t consider that they are doing anything particularly courageous, they just feel they’re doing what’s right, they’re doing their job.”
Kennedy also warned of the threat to an independent judiciary when judges are forced to spend increasing sums to win election or fend off challenges driven by special interest groups.
Former Justice Ternus highlighted this concern in remarks to Frank Bruni for his New York Times column entitled, “Heartland Justice,” about the Profile in Courage awards.
Continuing talk about impeachment of four Iowa Supreme Court justices over a controversial marriage ruling, nearly three years later, “is nothing short of absurd,” a Sioux City (Ia.) Journal editorial declared.
A Republican legislator has introduced anew resolutions calling for impeachment of the four justices, despite the failure of such an effort in the legislature last year (see Gavel Grab). This season’s impeachment bid gained no early traction.
The forceful editorial urged House Republican leaders to halt the latest “misguided effort” for impeachment and went on to explain:
“Impeachment exists for the removal of justices for reasons of malfeasance. In no way, shape or form did the court’s gay marriage decision – however controversial it was – rise to the level of malfeasance in office.”
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- Three former Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of gay marriage will receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in May, reports the Windy City Times. The award can be bestowed upon public servants and was created to celebrate political courage.
- The Senate confirmed Mary Elizabeth Phillips and Thomas Owen Rice to the position of U.S. District judge yesterday, according to the Spokesman Review. During the floor vote, both nominees received almost unanimous support. The senators’ votes can be found here.
- Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford was accused by Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, of being an “activist judge” after overturning a law requiring state employees to contribute part of their pay to Florida’s pension program, according to the Sunshine State News. Wisconsin Judge David Flanagan was also put under fire recently after blocking a Voter ID bill, says an article in the Chicago Tribune News.