Rightwing Efforts Fail to Defeat State Judges in Iowa, Fla.; Voters in Ala. Return ‘Ten Commandments’ Judge to Bench

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.”

Justice Pariente told The Herald, “I always try to see the positive in every situation and this has reaffirmed that Florida voters want a judicial branch that is fair and impartial and not subject to partisan politics.”

As noted during a panel discussion led by Justice at Stake during this year’s Lavender Law conference state judges are increasingly facing well-financed efforts to force them from them bench and not because of corruption or incompetence. The panel noted that openly gay judges have been targeted and that judges who rule in favor of equality, especially marriage equality are also increasingly targeted.

In Alabama, however, voters yesterday returned to the state’s highest court a judge who has shown a great misunderstanding of the First Amendment, and indeed was removed from the Supreme Court over his involvement in having a 2.5-ton Ten Commandments monument installed in the rotunda the Alabama Judicial building. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other public interest groups sued Moore arguing that the placement of the religious symbol in the public building was a violation of the First Amendment principle that calls for a separation of government and religion. Americans United won that case in federal court, but Moore defied federal orders to remove the hulking monument. A majority of his colleagues on the Ala. Supreme Court then voted Moore off the bench.

Moore won his chief justice spot back by defeating Circuit Judge Bob Vance, a Democrat, with 52 percent of the vote. Moore praised God for his victory, saying “He has directed us throughout this campaign and it shows,” Reuters reported.

At a 2007 “God & Country Patriotic Celebration & Conference,” Moore blasted secularists and others for misinterpreting the First Amendment. “They say God must be separated from life. As a Christian, God can’t be separate from life. God has everything to do with law,” he said according to a report from the magazine Church & State.

Yesterday was a fairly solid day for those who expect the judiciary to remain free of political sway. It was only marred by a state judicial election that returned to Alabama’s highest court, a man who has proven unfit to understand, let alone, protect constitutional rights. The Alabama case alone is a pretty strong argument against the state election of judges.