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.”
State judicial elections are becoming increasingly politicized, judges are the target of “intimidation” efforts across America and these trends pose a danger for impartial courts, former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus warned today.
Justice Ternus spoke during a panel convened in Washington, D.C. by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice to spotlight a new report, the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12.” The nation’s constitutional system is threatened when public confidence in the courts is eroding, she said.
Justice Ternus was removed from the Iowa bench in 2010 after interest groups pumped money into a campaign to oust her and two colleagues over a controversial marriage decision. The groups behind the effort wanted to send a message nationwide, she said, while mocking the targeted justices as “the ruling class” that “ignores the people at their peril.”
“It did send a much more effective message of intimidation” when the three were voted off the bench in a retention election, she said. And even when such an effort is not successful, she added, such efforts “leave a legacy of suspicion,” fear and intimidation and are dangerous for the courts. “That’s a terribly way to operate a court system that is the foundation of our democracy,” she said.
A report on the “New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12″ is getting news coverage across the country as a result of an Associated Press article about it. The report was compiled by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The AP began by mentioning a Des Moines Register article (see Gavel Grab) that reported on the spending of $833,000 in Iowa, where a state Supreme Court justice successfully stood for retention election amid controversy over a unanimous decision in 2009 about marriage for same-sex couples.
The Iowa election spending is an example of how special interest spending in judicial elections “has turned into an arms race,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The American people need to know that judges are deciding cases based on the law, not on who spent the most money to support their campaign.”
National organizations at odds over the issue of marriage for same-sex couples were among groups that ended up spending a total of $833,000 on an Iowa Supreme Court retention (up-or-down) election last year.
Radio Iowa reported this news based on “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12,” a report released this week by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
As part of $466,000 spent to defeat Justice David Wiggins, the National Organization for Marriage pumped more than $130,000 into TV advertising. A group called Iowans for Freedom spent another $318,000 on the unsuccessful effort to oust Justice Wiggins.
In the effort to retain Justice Wiggins, a group called Justice Not Politics spent $322,000, and The Human Rights Campaign furnished more than a third of that money.
In 2010, voters removed three Iowa Supreme Court justices over their votes in a unanimous court decision that had found a right to marriage for same-sex couples in Iowa. Critics of the ruling sought in 2012 to repeat the success.
In two key judicial election battleground states, a report on “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12” attracted headlines on Thursday, the day it was released online.
Co-authored by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the report documented unprecedented spending of $24.1 million by special interest groups and political parties on television ads and other election materials in state court races during the last election cycle.
“New report shows NC Supreme Court race drew record outside spending,” declared the headline for a (Raleigh) News & Observer blog post. Overall spending added up to more than $4.4 million, including $3.8 million in outside spending, on the North Carolina race between incumbent Justice Paul Newby and Judge Sam Ervin IV.
“Our courts are supposed to be a safe place for impartial justice, but campaign cash and political pressure are threatening to tip the scales,” the post quoted Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, as saying. “If Americans start thinking of judges as politicians in robes, our democracy is in trouble.” Read more
A report on “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2011-12” was posted online today, and it already has grabbed news media attention in The Daily Beast.
The latest in a series of “New Politics” reports since 2000 documents an election cycle that poses grave new threats to fair and impartial justice in America, according to the three legal reform groups that co-authored the report. The co-authors are Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Daily Beast article by Eleanor Clift highlighted the report’s finding that special interest money was unleashed in judicial elections to an unprecedented degree in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. The article was headlined, “Special Interest Money Has Upended Judicial Elections, Says New Report: Judges are supposed to be insulated from politics. But the 2010 Citizens United decision is putting the judicial system’s integrity at risk, a new report out Thursday warns.”
Overall, spending on high court elections in the 2011-12 cycle totaled $56.4 million, with $33.7 million spent on state Supreme Court TV advertising, up 42 percent from 2001. Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, said, “It’s the biggest threat to democracy that nobody’s heard of.”
“In the end, we want judges to decide cases based on the law and the Constitution, and not based on who gave them money,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center and the report’s main author. Read more
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