Iowa Supreme Court

  • November 7, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    State court judges in Iowa and Florida remain on the bench despite the fevered and well-funded efforts to remove them because of their involvement in rulings that rankled conservatives.

    In Iowa, State Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who was part of the majority in the 2009 Varnum v. Brien decision that supported marriage equality, retained his seat with about 55 percent of the vote. In Iowa 50 percent of the vote is needed to hold judicial seats. Some of the same organizations and individuals who successfully removed three other Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 – again for their involvement in advancing marriage equality – were targeting Wiggins. Typically judicial retention votes are intended for removing judges from the bench because of ethical breaches, corruption or incompetence. But religious right groups such as the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and the so-called Iowans for Freedom committee abused the retention vote to go after judges for doing their jobs. But their efforts this time faltered.  

    Religious right activist Bob Vander Plaats, also involved with the Iowans freedom group, told the Des Moines Register that Wiggins’ retention vote of nearly 55 percent was “not a great validation for Justice Wiggins.”

    The newspaper noted that the other judges up for retention votes, but not targeted by the religious groups, retained their high court seats with vote “totals of more than 74 percent.” The Register surmises that the lower vote for Wiggins (pictured) might fuel another effort by religious right groups to target the other justices involved in the Varnum majority when they face retention votes in 2016. Plaats refused to speculate on those justices.

    In Florida an effort funded by a Super Pac of the billionaire rightwing Koch brothers also flopped. The brothers’ Super Pac had urged voters to remove three Florida Supreme Court justices, primarily for their involvement in scuttling a 2010 ballot measure declaring that Affordable Care Act would not the law in the Florida. (This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law’s integral provision, the one requiring most Americans starting carrying a minimum amount of health care insurance in 2014.)

    But Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince “easily” survived the retention votes, The Miami Heraldreports. As in Iowa, the justices only need a 50 percent vote to retain their seats. Despite “an unprecedented campaign” to dislodge the justices, The Herald reported that all three received “about two-thirds of the vote, with most votes counted.”

  • September 24, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Religious Right activists are again itching to hobble the judiciary by threatening its ability to remain independent from heavy-handed politicos. And again, the Religious Right, not surprisingly, is targeting a state court justice who had the audacity to join a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court in finding that a statewide law banning same-sex marriage violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

    In fall 2010 three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices involved in that pro-equality ruling were voted off the bench in so-called retention votes. The effort to oust the judges was led primarily by Religious Right organizations, such as the National Organization for Marriage, which spent at least $200,000 to help reshape the Iowa Supreme Court, by yanking from the bench justices who supported the Iowa Constitution’s protection of fundamental rights. The American Family Association, a longtime Religious Right group, dedicated to demonizing the LGBT community was also instrumental in removing the Iowa Supreme Court justices.  

    Religious Right lobbyists obsessed with making life miserable for the LGBT community are mounting a concerted effort to yank Justice David Wiggins, another of the justices involved in the opinion, from the court. The Des Moines Register reports on the efforts of Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Religious Right lobbying group The Family Leader, and former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum to rally Iowans to vote Wiggins (pictured) off the bench.

    Plaats and his group were also a major force in the 2010 effort to yank justices from the Iowa Supreme Court. The Family Leader describes itself as “a consistent, courageous voice in churches, in the legislature, in the media, in the courtroom, in the public square … always standing for God’s truth.”

    At a rally this morning at the state capitol, former presidential hopeful Rick Santorum argued that the Iowa Supreme Court had sided with freedom over virtue, as Jens Manuel Krogstad wrote for the Register. Santorum and Plaats are on a bus tour of 17 cities to call for the ouster of Wiggins.

    Unlike 2010, the Religious Right effort to remake the state Supreme Court is being answered with an effort organized in part by attorneys and elected officials. The Register noted a counter rally at the capitol where speakers defended the independence of the courts.

  • August 27, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers may help push equality measures for LGBT persons, but at the end of the day if the state and federal courts are made up of rightwing jurists and those beholden to corporate interests, advancements toward equality will likely be an ongoing arduous and fitful slog.

    The health and safety of the LGBT community is “inextricably tied to the health and safety and vigor of our court systems, both federal and state,” said Justice at Stake’s Praveen Fernandes, at an Aug. 24 panel discussion at the National LGBT Bar Association’s 2012 Lavender Law gathering in Washington, D.C. Fernandes, the Director of Federal Affairs and Diversity Initiatives at Justice at Stake, noted that many people concentrate on the role federal courts occupy in legal battles, but that the “vast majority” of law is determined at the state level.

    And on the state level there is an increasing challenge to ensure that judges are independent of special interests. Thirty-nine states elect judges, and an increasing amount of money is flowing into those elections to elect judges inclined to advance corporate interests at the cost to individual rights. Several of the panelists participating in the “Defending the Courts: Why the LGBT Community Should be Particularly Concerned about the Strength and Independence of the Bench,” also noted that judges who uphold or bolster rights for the LGBT community are vulnerable to well-funded efforts to remove them from the bench.

    Judge Mary Celeste of the Denver County Court highlighted one of the more infamous efforts to punish judges who supported equality. 

    “We are talking about defending people who are supportive of LGBT issues. Now is anyone here not aware of what happened in Iowa,” Celeste said, referring to the successful effort to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were involved in a 2009 state court ruling that supported same-sex marriages. 

    The effort to oust the three Iowa Supreme Court justices was spearheaded by the American Family Association, a Christian lobbying group, and attracted $948.355 from out-of-state groups. In late 2010 former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee applauded the effort to remove the Iowa Supreme Court justices, claiming that Iowans were “sick of one branch of government thinking it is more powerful than the other two put together,” the Iowa Independent reported.

  • August 5, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Steve Sanders, visiting assistant professor, University of Michigan Law School


    The political media are about to begin obsessing over the Iowa Republican straw poll, scheduled for Saturday, August 13.  Recent commentary has focused on how religious conservatives have gained a chokehold on Iowa GOP politics.  Evangelical Christian activists remain outraged at the 2009 decision of the Iowa Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.  Last fall, they mounted a well-funded campaign to oust three of the justices who signed that ruling.  Their TV ads  – juxtaposing footage of villainish-looking "liberal, out of control judges" against images of hunters in camouflage and a chubby kid saluting the flag – accused the justices of "ignoring our traditional values" and "imposing their own values."

    Now, activist Bob Vander Plaats, who led the anti-court jihad, is pressuring presidential candidates to sign something called "The Marriage Vow," which includes a pledge of "[v]igorous opposition to any redefinition of the Institution of Marriage – faithful monogamy between one man and one woman – through statutory-, bureaucratic-, or court-imposed recognition of intimate unions which are bigamous, polygamous, polyandrous, same-sex, etc."  Religious-right darlings Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were the first candidates to enthusiastically sign up.

    The picture of Iowa we get from the mainstream media through next year's caucuses is likely to be of a state in the grip of militant Tea Partiers and theocrats.  That would be a shame, because the agenda of these particular activists – with their narrow view of social equality and hostility toward an independent judiciary – is unfaithful to the state's social and legal heritage.

  • December 7, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Ian Bartrum, Professor of Law, Drake University Law School
    The results of the judicial elections held here in Iowa last month were, simply put, disappointing. Our Supreme Court (pictured), and our state, lost three extremely talented, highly dedicated public servants -- Justices who have served Iowans very, very well for a number of years. Iowa, like many states, has adopted a version of the Missouri Plan of merit-based judicial selection, and, as part of the plan, the Justices of the Supreme Court appear periodically on the statewide ballot for a retention vote. This year, that vote was held in the shadow of the Court's controversial opinion in Varnum v. Brien, in which the Justices unanimously struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. A coalition of socially conservative Iowans, under the loose leadership of former high school principal Bob Vander Plaats, mounted a vigorous campaign to oust those Justices that happened to be up for retention. With the help of a tremendous influx of out of state money, Vander Plaats's campaign succeeded, and we now await the appointment of three new Justices.

    Recently, the American Constitution Society -- along with the Drake Constitutional Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, and GLBT advocacy group OneIowa -- sponsored a panel discussion on the election and its lessons at the Embassy Club in downtown Des Moines. I moderated a group that included Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins (in the first public appearance by any Justice since the election), Ben Stone of the ACLU, and Troy Price of OneIowa. Partly owing to the Justice's appearance, we had quite a large turnout and a fair amount of media attention. Two television stations, public radio, and all the local papers were in attendance-and, as the event happened to coincide with the Justices announcing they had picked a new interim Chief Justice, we managed to get lead billing in a number of outlets.

    Justice Wiggins spoke first and expressed heartfelt disappointment over the loss of his colleagues. He emphasized, however, that he had lost faith in neither the Merit Selection system, nor in Iowans' ability to understand and vote on important issues. "It is what it is," he said, conjuring up his best Bill Belichick impersonation, "Now we have to move on." He did say that, in his nearly thirty years in the Iowa Bar, the judicial nominating commission and the Governor have always "picked the very best person for the job." Though he was clearly disappointed with results of the election, he also made it clear that he did not think the system was broken.