Bob Vander Plaats is firing up his campaign
to throw out another Iowa Supreme Court justice
this fall, but this year things are different.
Iowans’ views on the flashpoint issue of gay
marriage have changed dramatically, and supporters
of the court are willing to get into the fray.
The stakes are high — not just for Dave Wiggins,
the justice who is the target of the conservatives
and evangelicals in this year’s retention election
— but for the future of the court that has guaranteed
freedom and equality for Iowans for nearly 175
And, indeed, for the future of the state itself.
This fall’s vote will determine whether the
2010 vote to throw out three justices was an
aberration — or a turning point in Iowa history.
If the Vander Plaats forces win, future retention
elections will be based on politics, not merit,
changing the tone and the rhythms of the state,
court watchers agree. If they lose, the effort
will be dead by the time the next retention
election comes up in four years, they also agree.
Merit will prevail.
In April of 2009, the seven justices on the
court unanimously ruled in Varnum v. Brien that
the Iowa constitution guarantees same-sex couples
the right to marry in civil ceremonies. A month
or so later, a poll showed that Iowans opposed
that ruling by a 58-37 margin. The same poll
showed that Iowans opposed gay marriage by a
55-39 margin. A year later, Iowans refused to
retain the three justices who were up for a
retention vote, marking the first time any Supreme
Court justice lost a retention vote.
But that was then.
Now, Iowans approve of the Varnum ruling by
a 48-43 margin. And they support same-sex marriage
by a 48-44 margin. Those are huge turnarounds.
What’s more, Iowans have an overwhelmingly favorable
view of the state supreme court and strongly
believe the court should be free from political
pressure as it hands down rulings.
Those are the findings of a new survey taken
for Justice Not Politics, a group formed to
support the retention of the four Supreme Court
justices who will be on the ballot in November.
The findings, made available to Cityview, indicate
opponents will have a much tougher time deposing
any justices this fall — if the court’s supporters
can get out the vote. But if the supporters
can’t get out the vote, Wiggins — and perhaps
others — are in trouble.
Iowa’s judges face a statewide, up-or-down retention
vote in the year after they are appointed by
the governor and every eight years thereafter.
Anger over the Varnum decision, fueled by an
expensive political campaign by conservatives
and evangelicals and orchestrated by three-time
gubernatorial loser Vander Plaats, led to the
ouster in 2010 of Chief Justice Marsha Ternus
and Justices David Baker and Michael J. Streit.
The vote was about 54-46 against retention.
The justices and their supporters, perplexed
by the sudden politicalization of the retention
election, did little to fight back.
But that was then.
Now, backers of retention are organized. Justice
Not Politics is a bipartisan coalition co-chaired
by former Democratic lieutenant governor Sally
Pederson and former Republican lieutenant governor
Joy Corning. It aims “to counter the effort
of extremists from hijacking Iowa’s courts.”
Its affiliate, the Justice Not Politics Action
Fund, was set up last week “to tell voters to
vote yes,” says Pederson, who chairs that fund.
It is raising several hundred thousand dollars
to get its message out — and to get its allies
to the polls.
They start from solid ground.
If the retention vote were held today, Wiggins
would be retained, the new survey indicates.
Iowans view him more favorably than they view
legislators, President Barack Obama, Republican
presidential candidate Mitt Romney and — by
a large margin — Vander Plaats, whose negative
ratings are up 20 points in the past two years.
(Also on the ballot are the three men appointed
to replace the ousted justices, and Justice
Not Politics is working for their retention
as well, though they are less controversial.)
Wiggins has a 10-point edge — 34 to 24 — among
those polled last month by Greenberg Quinlan
Rosner, a Washington firm hired by Justice Not
Politics. The poll of 600 likely voters was
conducted Aug. 23-26 and has a margin of error
of plus or minus four points. But more than
40 percent of the respondents didn’t know the
retention issue would be on the ballot, and
40 percent — presumably most of the same people
— didn’t know how they’d vote.
It’s that group that’s up for grabs and that
both Vander Plaats and Justice Not Politics
want to enlist. Vander Plaats next week will
go on a four-day, 17-town “No Wiggins” bus tour
to drum up support against Wiggins. (The Iowa
bar association is thinking of following the
Vander Plaats bus with its own pro-Wiggins bus.)
If Wiggins stays, the Vander Plaats people say,
it’s all but the end of the world.
“If activist judges feel they can redefine marriage
in Iowa, then none of our sacred traditions
and rights are safe. All of our freedoms and
rights concerning our property, the 2nd Amendment,
the protection of human life, educational choices,
free enterprise, limited government and more
are vulnerable if our Supreme Court is controlled
by activist judges like David Wiggins,” the
Iowans For Freedom website (www.nowiggins.com)
Justice Not Politics will seek to reinforce
the views of the pro-court voters, to get the
attention of Iowans who have switched their
position on same-sex marriage, and to sway the
undecided. (websites: www.yesonretention.com,
www.justicenotpolitics.org). Independent voters
have had a massive change of mind in the past
two years — 27 percent favored the Varnum decision
in 2009, 51 percent favor it now — and are likely
targets. Moderate Republicans also will be targeted,
probably through social media and direct mail.
If those people vote, Wiggins wins. If they
don’t, he loses.
Wiggins himself is in an odd position. If he
fights back, he is conceding the court has become
political. If he doesn’t, he is letting the
debate be one-sided. Politics “has no business
in the courts,” he wrote in Sunday’s Des Moines
Register. “I do not want Iowa to end up like
states with highly partisan courts. Iowa is
better than that.” That appears to be why Justice
Not Politics has jumped in — to campaign, to
debate, to publicize, but to keep Wiggins above
There are more than a few ironies and oddities
in the fight. The latest poll asked people how
they voted in the 2010 retention election. About
half said they voted to retain, about a third
said they voted to oust. In fact, the three
justices were voted out by about 54-46 margins.
And while religious groups are prominent in
the anti-court, anti-Varnum move, the Varnum
case itself is as much about religious freedom
in Iowa as it is about same-sex marriage, making
clear that the ruling refers to civil marriage.
“Religious objections to same-sex marriage are
supported by thousands of years of tradition
and biblical interpretation,” the court noted.
And it reaffirmed the right of religious institutions
to refuse to perform same-sex marriage. But
it also noted that “state government can have
no religious views, either directly or indirectly,
expressed though its legislation. This proposition
is the essence of the separation of church and
The election is Nov. 6. No one is saying it
won’t be close. ...
The United States Senate last week confirmed
Stephanie Rose to be a federal judge for the
southern district of Iowa, which includes Des
Moines. The vote was 89-1, somewhat remarkable
in this era of political nastiness and a tribute
to the political skills of Sen. Tom Harkin.
It is noteworthy for a couple of other reasons:
Rose becomes the first woman to sit on the bench
in the Southern District, and she becomes the
72nd woman confirmed for the federal bench during
the presidency of Barack Obama — a record for
any term of any president. ...
The United States Supreme Court next week will
consider whether to hear the appeal of Sholom
Rubashkin, who received an astonishing 27-year
sentence from Cedar Rapids federal judge Linda
Reade after being convicted of financial crimes
following the May 2008 federal raid on the Agriprocessors
kosher meatpacking plant he ran in Postville.
Many people, including former attorneys general
and FBI directors and federal judges, think
the penalty was particularly harsh and think
Reade wrongly worked too closely with federal
agents and prosecutors before the raid. Even
though the Supreme Court grants only about 80
of the 8,000 or so petitions it receives seeking
review of decisions, there’s believed to be
a pretty high chance it will take the case.
That poll commissioned by Justice Not Politics
put President Obama ahead of Mitt Romney, 49
to 47, in Iowa. That was before the two political
conventions. It also asked Iowans to rate people
and institutions on a scale of 0 to 100, with
100 being a “very warm, favorable” feeling and
zero being a “very cold, unfavorable” opinion.
The Iowa Supreme Court ranked highest with a
57 average; Vander Plaats was lowest at 38.
Some others: Obama 48, Romney 45, Wiggins 49,
Chief Justice Mark Cady 54, Terry Branstad 51,
the legislature 48.
Update: Cityview reported a couple
of weeks ago that Vander Plaats was moving to
Des Moines from Sioux City. The sale now has
been recorded. He paid $400,000 for a four-bedroom,
three-bathroom, two-fireplace, four-garage home
at 2105 N.W. Gabus Drive in Grimes. The seller
was Jeff Vaage, the very successful coach of
the Drake women’s tennis teams in the 1990s.
And the Branstads are living temporarily in
an apartment in the East Village while mold
is removed from Terrace Hill. CV