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.