Something happened on Election Day in Iowa that threatens the principles of democracy upon which this country was founded: Three well-respected Iowa Supreme Court Justices lost retention elections following a vicious campaign by anti-gay groups who targeted them because of the Court’s 2009 unanimous decision to uphold marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The purpose of the judiciary in Iowa is to uphold that state’s constitution and protect the fundamental rights of individuals — and the duty of the federal judiciary is to uphold the principles in the federal Constitution. The founders of our nation understood that if courts are not insulated from voters who disagree with particular decisions, then majorities will have the power to strip fundamental rights away from minorities — and our cherished principles of liberty and freedom will disappear.
In Iowa, seven jurists were posed a question by people who had been denied basic fairness guaranteed by the state constitution. The judges did their jobs with integrity — as they must. Then, one-issue ideologues spent nearly $1 million to intimidate the three justices who were up for a routine retention election that occurs every eight years. Their campaign was surely intended not only to oust these three justices but also to intimidate any jurist facing a controversial case involving the rights of minority groups. The anti-gay bullies who toured Iowa represented some of the same groups whose appeals were rejected by the United States Supreme Court earlier this year when they attempted to conceal the names of supporters who signed an anti-gay ballot measure in Washington State by making false claims that they were fearful of retribution. In one state, they play “victim” while in another they intimidate.
Attacking the authority of judges is not limited to Iowa. When Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that California’s Proposition 8 (the ballot measure that amended the state Constitution to restrict marriage to different-sex couples) violated the guarantees of equal protection and due process, his credibility was immediately disparaged by anti-equality groups who claimed that because Judge Walker was rumored to be gay, he could not rule fairly on the case. Lose the argument, attack the judge.
Political attacks on the judiciary are nothing new. In 1954, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that state-mandated segregation in public schools violated the U.S. Constitution, there were cries that the Court had overstepped its role and usurped power from the legislature. Billboards to “Impeach Earl Warren” littered the South. Thankfully, the nation rejected those attempts to politicize the judiciary and the Warren Court’s landmark civil rights decisions are celebrated today.
But the level of rage directed at judges and courts, and the degree to which the politicization of the judiciary has been embraced by mainstream elected officials is alarming. The U.S. Senate has now blocked or impeded the confirmation of federal judges to such a degree that legal professionals from all perspectives have declared it a crisis: By this point in the presidency of George W. Bush, the Senate had confirmed 78 judges, or 62 percent of the President’s nominees. By contrast, the Senate has now confirmed only 41 new federal judges since President Obama took office — only 48 percent of the President’s nominees. There are over 100 vacancies on the federal bench.
The director of One Iowa, the statewide LGBT equality group, called the results of the retention election a “perfect storm of electoral discontent and out-of-state special interest money.” It was also fueled by a blatant lie: A flier from their bus tour through Iowa reads, “The ruling by these judges, a ruling which goes directly against the will of the citizens, can be reversed through the act of Iowans voting ‘No’ on the retention of all three activist judges.” Retention elections have no effect on prior decisions — nor should they.
The Iowa Supreme Court delivered justice that will outlast this political fight by upholding the Iowa Constitution’s guarantee of equality for all Iowans. But this spiteful campaign is a wake-up call to voters who must resist future attempts to politicize the courts. We all share the responsibility to protect the system of checks and balances that defines our democracy. If an embattled judiciary were to lose its ability to uphold constitutional principles with impartiality, that would be a tragic loss for our country. We can’t let that happen.