Pre-Election Opinion: Supporting Judicial Retention in Iowa

The following was published in the November 1 issue of The Commentator. In the November 2 elections, all three Iowa Supreme Court justices upon which this piece was focused lost their seats on the bench. It is presented here for comment.

As something of an eternal college student, every two years each election makes me pause and wonder where I should cast my vote. Considering I split time between the Hawkeye State and now the Empire State, I am presented something of a stark choice. “Home” for me will always be Iowa, but certainly what happens in Albany or in lower Manhattan generally impacts me more.

But I still decided to vote absentee in Iowa. Why? Because I value the rule of the law over the popular mob.

Last year, the Iowa Supreme Court took the decidedly bold step in Varnum v. Brien of declaring the equal protection clause of the Iowan Constitution required the state to permit same-sex marriages. Yes, semi-conservative, religious Iowa, deep in the heartland, opened the doors of matrimony to the gays. I was stunned since despite its “swing status,” Iowa is hardly a progressive state. Still, the Supreme Court’s legal decision was a good one, and on the second day, locusts did not visit Iowa’s fields and the Mississippi did not turn to blood. Subsequently, 92 percent of pragmatic minded Iowans concluded gay marriage did not much affect their lives at all. It remains something of a contentious issue, but social conservatives have been unable to use the decision as a rallying cry.

Unable to get rid of gay marriage, social conservatives in Iowa have turned their wrath against the Supreme Court justices that permitted it. While most Iowans are concerned about the economy and, as always, agriculture, a dedicated group of activists intends to oust three of the seven Supreme Court justices.

Iowa currently has a merit-based selection system for state judges but their subsequent retention is put to popular vote. No Iowa Supreme Court justice has lost his or her seat since the system was adopted almost five decades ago. This year’s slate of judges have all been deemed well-qualified by the Iowa Bar Association, but as the oxymoronic Iowa for Freedom put it, social conservatives couldn’t “care less” about the legal qualifications of judges.

These conservative groups see no downside to ousting judges due to a political disagreement. Nevermind, the end result threatens to turn my home state’s judiciary into the sword of the mob rather than the shield of the minority. Ousting the justices clearly would not undo the gay marriage ruling, but it would put the literal fear of God into the state judiciary if it should run afoul of conservative causes. How is that justice? One of the greatest threats to justice in the United States, according to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is the diminished independence of our state judiciaries. Justices, she warned at NYU two years ago, must only be “constrained by what the law says and requires, free from outside influence.”

our elected leaders, I still hold onto some naïve admiration for our justice system. As for New York,The proposed destruction of Iowa’s judicial meritocracy over an issue that does not even affect the majority of Iowans is a travesty. So once more, I cast my vote in Iowa. Not because I care about who holds the House or the Senate come next January, but because while I may have lost a lot of hope in there is evidently some sort of gambling ballot initiative. I’m strangely ambivalent.