Gavel Grab

Poll: Movement Toward Ouster of an IA Justice

More Iowa voters are moving toward what could be the first ouster of a state Supreme Court justice since the state adopted its merit selection and judicial retention law almost 50 years ago.

But the outcome of the contentious retention votes for three justices on Election Day still could not be predicted based on a new poll from the Des Moines Register.

Social conservatives’ fierce ouster campaign to boot the justices, funded in part by national groups, has responded to a unanimous court ruling in 2009 that legalized same-sex marriage. The latest poll showed 37 percent of voters say they want to oust all three justices; 34 percent want to keep them; and 10 percent say they would dump some of them.

While advocates of retaining all three justices have argued that an ouster would politicize the courts, the justices’ critics have maintained fervently that the courts should more closely reflect the will of the mainstream.

“This is an activist court on steroids,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a Republican and leader of the pro-ouster Iowa for Freedom campaign. “Our goal is to send a message to the courts that you need to stay within your constitutional boundaries.”

But voter Craig Chumbley of Cedar Falls said views the ouster drive as an effort to intimidate the judiciary.

“They’re trying to politicize the rule of law, and I think it’s ridiculous,” Chumbley said. “I get the sense that the people who are voting against retention don’t understand the role of courts. These are the people who weren’t paying attention in government class.”

The Iowa battleground has drawn attention from national news media and could have implications for state beyond Iowa’s borders.

Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White, who now teaches law at the University of Tennessee, said dumping a justice over a single ruling would “change the complexion and attitude of the kind of people who want to serve on the court.” Voters took her off the bench in 1996 over a death-penalty ruling that one of her colleagues penned.

The head of the Iowa Family Policy Center has encouraged his group’s supporters to vote no on all Iowa judges appearing on the November ballot. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, recently told a rally that judges on the ballot should be removed because, in part, “it creates an opportunity for a new governor to appoint” replacements, the Iowa Independent reported.

An analysis by that publication identified six judicial election districts as “most likely to see judges removed from the bench.”

A Des Moines Register article reported, meanwhile, that 74 of Iowa’s justices and judges face retention votes Tuesday, and if a large number were removed from the bench, court rulings and hearings could be delayed for months.

“We could have a catastrophic situation if we had as many as 74 judicial vacancies,” said David Boyd, Iowa Judicial Branch administrator. You can read more about the Iowa elections in Gavel Grab and from Justice at Stake’s Iowa news page.

Among the groups that got in the act supporting the ouster campaign was a political action committee affiliated with Citizens United. A  campaign finance lawsuit by Citizens United led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision this year. The committee spent $18,000 on phone messages urging a vote against retention, according to a Huffington Post report.

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