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
Dissenting opinions from the Iowa Supreme Court have increased significantly since a retention (up-or-down) election in 2010 when critics successfully campaigned to oust three justices over a controversial decision about marriage.
A news article in The Gazette reported that cases with dissents have increased from six in 2009 to 22 in 2011-12 and 34 in 2012-13. The number of dissents remains relatively low, the newspaper said.
The article explored theories that might explain the increasing dissents. Ex-Justice Michael Streit, who was among those removed in the 2010 election, said the court on which he sat put more emphasis on reaching consensus than is now the case. Read more
Election watchers who observed the role played by The Family Leader in Iowa’s judicial retention elections in 2010 and 2012 will note that the group remains active on the court front. A Des Moines Register editorial entitled “Family Leader Is Wrong to Try to Bully Judge” covers recent action by the group, led by conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats. A column in the same paper by columnist Rekha Basu takes aim at what it calls the group’s “vendetta campaign.”
According to the Register, The Family Leader refers to its part in a successful effort to unseat three Iowa Supreme Court Justices in 2010, in a direct threat against Polk County District Judge Karen Romano. A recent ruling by Romano holds up implementation of an Iowa Board of Medicine regulation on medication abortions.
In a statement headlined “Remember the Romano,” The Family Leader references the 2010 judicial retention election and warns, “Apparently Judge Romano has not learned a lesson from that vote. The Family Leader encourages Iowans to remember Judge Karen Romano’s activism when she is up for retention in November 2016.
In its editorial, the Register calls the statement a “pre-emptive attack on a judge” that “should not be tolerated in this state.”
An activist’s complaint with an Iowa election watchdog agency may provide a test of an Iowa disclosure law passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, a Des Moines Register editorial says.
The topic is in the news because of a collateral development. This week, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board voted against removing its executive director from a probe of the complaint, the Associated Press reported.
In the complaint, activist Fred Karger alleges that the National Organization for Marriage violated state law by failing to disclose all of its donors when it pushed in 2010 and 2012 retention elections to oust four Iowa Supreme Court justices.
The ethics board’s executive director once clerked for one of the justices who was removed in 2010, and NOM sought her removal based on that employment and also on remarks she made in August that NOM contended were prejudicial.
The Register editorial says the recent proceedings make it clear that NOM is playing hardball in the matter. It says similar disclosure laws passed after Citizens United are coming under attack by special interest groups around the country, and hard questions will be weighed about Iowa’s law: Read more
Former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus of the Iowa Supreme Court was removed in a retention election almost three years ago amid an ouster campaign over a controversial court ruling.
Nonetheless, she still supports the retention (up-or-down) election process that is part of Iowa’s merit-based system for choosing judges, according to a Des Moines Register article.
It’s important for Iowans to remember that merit selection is the best means for getting qualified justices on the court, Justice Ternus said:
“I think what’s more significant is what we talked about today going forward and to make sure that we protect the merit selection that we have of judges here in Iowa. It’s the best way to make sure that we have a competent judiciary and one that will adhere to the rule of law.” Read more
The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board has voted unanimously to investigate a complaint filed by an activist alleging the National Organization for Marriage violated state law by failing to disclose all of its donors when it pushed in 2010 and 2012 retention elections to oust four Iowa Supreme Court justices.
So far, ethics board executive director Megan Tooker said, “[W]e haven’t found that NOM did anything wrong.” But she found “absolutely false” the organization’s claims that it is legal to keep secret the names of donors, and other statements it made about Iowa disclosure laws, according to a Quad-City Times article.
The justices participated in a 2009 ruling that found it unconstitutional to deny civil marriage to same-sex couples. Activist Fred Karger, who filed the complaint, said it involves important issues because NOM may press in the future to oust other state Supreme Court justices who participated in the ruling and to defeat a state Senate leader who has championed the right of same-sex couples to marry. Read more
Two prominent, bipartisan defenders of fair and impartial courts in Iowa are using a Des Moines Register commentary to urge the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to investigate a complaint alleging the violation of state law during state Supreme Court retention elections in 2010 and 2012.
Political activist Fred Karger alleged in June that the National Organization for Marriage had violated state law by failing to disclose all of its donors when it pushed in the retention elections to oust four Iowa Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab).
The newspaper commentary was written by Sally Pederson and Joy Corning, former Democratic and Republican lieutenant governors, respectively, and honorary co-chairs of Justice Not Politics, a nonpartisan coalition. They wrote:
“There is no question that donations will continue to pour into our state, but unless we discover definitively whether the law was broken, Iowa will be open for business to any group that wants to use its limitless campaign funds to influence our courts.” Read more
Some of the harshest attacks launched against fair and impartial courts over single decisions were sparked by state judges’ votes on issues surrounding marriage for same-sex couples.
Now that the Supreme Court has issued two marriage rulings, some experts predict there may be more hard-fought court fights ahead, especially as advocates challenge state bans on marriage between same-sex couples.
Although the Supreme Court did not rule this week on a right to marriage, said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, its opinion striking down a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) gives advocates of gay rights more fodder to challenge marriage bans.
“This is the beginning of a whole new round of jurisprudence,” Romero told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s enormously significant.”
A failed proposal to slash the salaries of four Iowa Supreme Court justices over their votes on a marriage ruling (see Gavel Grab) is part of a “national war on state courts,” reports an ABA Journal article. It prominently cites concerns identified by Justice at Stake.
To lay the groundwork for favorable court rulings, special interests are hitting judges with attack ads in campaigns, and legislators are trying to “pack or unpack higher courts with like-minded jurists,” says the article by L. Jay Jackson, a lawyer and free-lance journalist. She quotes JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg as saying an entire “outrage industry,” including politicians, pundits, and fundraisers, has accelerated the push against our courts:
“’The judiciary has to be ready for a more or less permanent challenge to its legitimacy,’ Brandenburg says.”
“Legal observers say the judiciary is under attack as never before, jeopardizing the American tradition of impartial jurisprudence,” the article warns. At the same time, when the public is informed Read more
“Iowans should take warning there are real consequences when justice has a price tag,” columnist Kathie Obradovich wrote in the Des Moines Register, taking note of a recent study by the American Constitution Society.
The ACS report found a significant statistical relationship between campaign money from business groups in state judicial elections and state supreme court justices voting in favor of business interests (see Gavel Grab). However, it did not find such a relationship in retention election systems.
And that spells “good news for Iowa,” Obradovich asserted, because the state’s Supreme Court justices initially are appointed by the governor in a merit-based selection process and later stand in a retention (yes-or-no) election.
Iowa legislators have resisted proposals to make major changes to the state’s merit selection process, and Obradovich interpreted the ACS study to suggest “that was the right decision in terms of keeping Iowa courts free of influences related to campaign fundraising.”