Judicial independence

  • 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.”

  • October 9, 2012

    By Jeremy Leaming

    Special interests are ratcheting up their efforts to influence the make-up of state courts, which handle the bulk of the country’s legal actions. These special interests, in large part, are riled over certain rulings of state courts in Iowa, Florida and a string of others, and willing to spend boatloads of money to change those courts. 

    Recently this blog noted the 2010 effort by Christian rightists to unseat Iowa Supreme Court justices for their involvement in a 2009 opinion that invalidated a law barring same-sex marriage. (In Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa higher court said the law violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.) The effort was led by groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and other religious groups bent on demonizing the LGBT community, in part by opposing equality efforts. That effort was successful in removing three of the Iowa State Supreme Court justices, and some of those same groups are gunning for another justice involved in the Varnum majority – Justice David Wiggins. The New York Times blasted the effort to oust Wiggins in a so-called retention vote on Election Day as a “battle over the future of a fair and independent judiciary.” The Times’ editorial went on to state that retention votes were meant to remove judges from the bench because of corruption or incompetence, not because of unpopular rulings.

    In a panel discussion organized by Justice at Stake for this year’s Lavender Law conference, several of the panelists noted that state judges who have issued rulings in favor of marriage equality have often been the target of efforts to yank them from the bench. Lambda Legal’s Eric Lesh said courts nationwide “face real threats from well-funded, special interest groups that seek to politicize our judiciary and undermine the integrity of our justice system.”

    It’s not just state court opinions advancing equality that are triggering threats to state courts.

  • 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.

  • June 1, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Michigan Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kelly and retired Sixth Circuit Judge James L. Ryan. Justice Kelly will participate in a panel on judicial campaigns and public confidence in the courts during the American Constitution Society’s National Convention in June.


    Since the turn of the century, Michigan has gained a reputation for Supreme Court election campaigns that are among the most expensive, least transparent and most partisan in the country. Our campaign ads have been among the most offensive. That is why we convened a bipartisan task force of prominent Michiganders to study how Supreme Court justices are selected across the nation and recommended improvements to Michigan’s Supreme Court selection process.

    The 2010 candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court raised a total of $2.6 million. The political parties and state-based interest groups reported spending another $2.5 million. But data collected from the public files of state television broadcasters and cable systems showed that an additional $6.3 million was spent by the political parties and interest groups. Michigan law does not require this candidate-focused “issue” advertising to be reported in the state campaign finance disclosure system.

    This was not the first time that the majority of money spent in a Michigan Supreme Court campaign was undisclosed to the public. For the elections from 2000 through 2010, $21.5 million was reported and $20.8 million was paid for undisclosed television advertising.