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In the final week of a contentious midterm election when voters are understandably focused on pocket-book issues, a collection of anti-gay groups and politicians are crisscrossing Iowa in a bus tour aimed at ousting three state Supreme Court justices who took a particular view of the state constitution.
Funded by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and the Family Research Council (FRC), this campaign has nothing to do with Des Moines, Dubuque or Waterloo. Instead, it’s all about sending a chilling warning to state justices sitting everywhere else: either enforce your state constitution in the same, rigid ideological way as we do, or we’re coming to get you.
The wrath of NOM is notable: it’s already spent over $500,000 on what is usually a sleepy retention election and may spend even more before election day. This high-octane effort to knock off three justices, centers on the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous 2009 decision that allowed same-sex couples to marry. The well-reasoned and deliberative decision was entirely consistent with Supreme Court rulings in California, Massachusetts and Connecticut. It is also unlikely to ever be revisited by the court, making this campaign even more transparent for what it really is.
Frankly, this campaign is more wild west vigilante than democracy in action. The three judges under fire in NOM-financed television ads refuse to mount a counter attack believing it sends the wrong message to litigants who may appear in court before them.
It also disregards a scrupulous selection process based on merit, not politics or ideology. Iowa judges are chosen after review by the Judicial Nominating Commission which forwards qualified candidates to the governor for appointment. Newly appointed judges are immediately seated and hear cases for at least a year until the next retention election. Once “retained” by voters, they serve an eight year term.
Since the merit selection and retention system was established in 1962, only four judges have been thrown out, and none of them from the state’s highest court. The system was designed to flag gross misconduct, not punish judges for one ruling.
But that was before outside groups weighed in with their money and their fear-mongering. To read the announcement of NOM’s bus tour, voters are left to believe that unless these three judges get the boot, everything is up for grabs, from Iowans’ hunting rifles to their very right to vote.
Is it worth restating that the state Supreme Court’s decision on marriage was unanimous? But that’s a small point to 2012 presidential hopeful Rick Santorum who’s flying out for the Iowa tour. Santorum’s homophobic views are well documented; he’s compared homosexuality to bestiality, incest and adultery. This is clearly his opportunity to travel around a presidential primary state while burnishing his right-wing credentials.
Process and precedent also didn’t deter the American Family Association (AFA) from being an early campaign backer. The AFA is perhaps best known for boycotting Disney for eight years claiming it promoted a gay agenda. It moved onto the auto industry in 2005, boycotting Ford Motor Company because it advertised in gay periodicals.
It makes sense, doesn’t it, that organizations bent on intimidating businesses would be game to take on judges?
Like most people, I want to live in a country where judges look at the case before them and apply past precedent and sound legal principals to the grey areas. Like former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, appointed by President Reagan and viewed as a moderate, I’m terrified of a judicial system hijacked by well-heeled ideologues, on the left or the right, unhappy with a single decision.
What’s happening this election cycle in Iowa has nothing to do with the Hawkeyes and everything to do with threatening judicial independence everywhere. And it’s about right-wing, anti-gay groups like NOM, FRC and AFA getting a notch in their belt by attacking judges who are too principled to fight back.