Ouster of Iowa Justices Raises Concern About Judicial Independence

November 4, 2010

In a "historic upset," the three justices in Iowa up for retention elections were voted out of their seats following a well-funded campaign to remove the justices because of their decision to allow same-sex marriage.

The vote marked the first time a judge has lost a retention election in Iowa since the retention system was implemented in 1962, The DesMoines Register reports. In the retention system, judges who were initially appointed are subject to an up-or-down vote with no opponent.

"What is so disturbing about this is that it really might cause judges in the future to be less willing to protect minorities out of fear that they might be voted out of office," University of California, Irvine, School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, told The New York Times. "Something like this really does chill other judges."

Conservative groups in 16 states launched similar campaigns against judges, spending more on retention elections this year than was spent in the past decade, but Iowa was the only state in which the justices lost their retention election, The New York Times reports.

In Iowa, several groups from outside the state helped to fund the ouster campaign, outspending supporters of the judges by four-to-one. The National Organization for Marriage spent $200,000 in Iowa, according to The Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

"[T]his result may end up being an even bigger story in the long-term than Harry Reid defeating Sharron Angle, or the size of the Republican swing in the House," law professor and frequent ACS contributor Stephen Vladeck writes in PrawfsBlawg.

Jeffrey Toobin calls the Iowa result the most vivid example of a message on social issues emerging from the 2010 midterm elections, in a blog post for The New Yorker.

"Sadly, this is probably one of the least discussed, yet most pernicious, aspects of monetary influence in political campaigns in the wake of the much discussed Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court," writes FireDogLake's Bmaz. The post continues:

Although judicial retention elections, being non-partisan in nature, were not directly affected by the Citizens United decision to the degree normal partisan elections were, the sheer scope of large money injected will clearly have an increasing impact on them, as will this remarkable result in Iowa.

Courtrooms, especially those of the appellate level, should be places where constitutions, both state and federal, reign supreme and the rights of all citizens are respected and protected without regard to the vagaries and whims of interest groups and fundamentalist bigots of any striping. The wild success of the conservative effort to remove the Iowa Judges signals a disturbing trend in the wrong direction.