Gavel Grab

‘New Politics’ Report: National Groups Sparred in IA Election

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.

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‘New Politics’ Report Gets Headlines in Election Battleground States

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

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Editorial Commends Enhanced Transparency in IA Judicial Screening

A Des Moines Register editorial used a touch of humor when summing up a recent controversy over apparently off-limits questioning of judicial candidates by two screening commission members. Declared the headline: “Public now knows when dumb questions are asked.”

The judicial screening commission members questioned Iowa Court of Appeals candidates about church involvement and covenant marriage vows  (see Gavel Grab). The episode also highlighted appointments made to the commission by Gov. Terry Branstad. The editorial concluded:

“The best that can be said of this episode is that the public was made aware of the inappropriate questions because these interviews are now open to the public, and they are carried live on the Iowa Judicial Branch website. Before the court moved toward more transparency in judicial nomination interviews, the public would have never known what sort of questions candidates were asked.”

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‘Inappropriate’ Questions for Judge Applicants Put Focus on IA Governor

After two judicial screening commission members questioned Iowa Court of Appeals candidates about church involvement and covenant vows, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (photo) is getting news media attention over his picks for the panel and their apparently off-limits questioning.

Connie Ryan Terrell, chairwoman of Justice Not Politics, termed the questions inappropriate and said the governor should say what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to his appointees questioning judicial candidates.

“I do think he should make a statement about what is appropriate and what’s inappropriate,” Ryan Terrell said, according to a Des Moines Register article. “Beyond that, I think the Judicial Branch and the nominating commission itself needs to make a statement.”

“I think they were most inappropriate,” former Iowa Lt. Gov. Joy Corning, a Republican, said about the questions that were asked.  “Those questions have nothing to do with their qualification on the Court of Appeals.” Read more

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Test for IA Disclosure Law Seen in Court Elections Spending Complaint

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

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IA Justice Removed Three Years Ago Still Backs Retention Elections

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

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Iowa Board to Investigate Retention Elections Spending Complaint

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

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Leaders Urge IA Board to Probe Court Elections Spending Complaint

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

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Home-State Editorial: Grassley Wrong on ‘Court Packing’ Claim

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has called President Obama’s nominations to three fill vacancies on an influential appeals bench “court packing,” but an editorial in a leading home-state newspaper says Grassley is flat wrong.

The phrase refers to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s failed 1937 efforts to add seats to the Supreme Court and then name his appointees, a Des Moines Register editorial says. Today, on the other hand, Grassley has used a “bad analogy,” and “Filling vacancies on the federal courts is the president’s constitutional duty. Unless any of the three is found to be unsuited for the bench, the Senate should confirm them.”

A showdown may unfold in the Senate over Obama’s nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. Grassley is a Republican. Read more

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Iowa Commentary: ‘When Justice Has a Price Tag,’ Beware

“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.”

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