Special Interests Still Working to Punish Iowa Supreme Court for 2009 Marriage Equality Ruling

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.

Guy Cook, president-elect of the Iowa State Bar Association, said “We don’t want to return to the days where politics have been injected into our system, and remove the fair and impartial courts that we have, well-respected throughout this country,” the Register reported.

The New York Times' editorial page also blasted the special interests’ effort to oust Justice Wiggins, calling the matter “a battle over the future of a fair and independent judiciary.”

Iowa’s retention elections, The Times continued “is meant to allow for the removal of corrupt or incompetent judges, not to facilitate partisan manipulation and judicial intimidation.”

That point – that the Iowa retention vote is being abused by the likes of the Family Leaders – was made by several panelists during a discussion on independence of the courts at the National LGBT Bar Association’s 2012 Lavender Law conference. Lambda Legal’s Eric Lesh, on the panel organized by Justice at Stake, said courts nationwide “face real threats from well-funded, special interest groups that seek to politicize our judiciary and undermine the integrity of our system of justice.” 

In the 2009 opinion in Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa Supreme Court noted that its responsibility was “to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.”

The situation in Iowa is not an isolated incident. With increasing frequency special interests with deep pockets are not only looking to influence political parties, they are striving to punish judges who offend their beliefs and economic interests or any other number of concerns. It is increasingly clear that these special interests either don’t understand the role of the judiciary or simply don’t care. Folks like Santorum and Plaats can spew rhetoric about virtue all day long, but their actions are anything but. Instead they are a menace to the ability of courts to function impartially and to protect fundamental rights.