DES MOINES — A pair of moving billboards left Des Moines Monday morning: One encouraged people to kick an Iowa Supreme Court justice off the bench, the other saying Iowans should keep him.
The former billboard is on the side of a bus being driven around the state by a group called Iowans for Freedom. It’s supported by socially conservative groups such as the Family Leader, the Heritage Foundation and CatholicVote.Org and seeks the ouster of Justice David Wiggins.
Wiggins is one of four Iowa Supreme Court judges up for retention this year, but he is the only one on the ballot who participated in the unanimous Varnum v. Brien decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
The other billboard is on the side of a box truck that will tail the anti-Wiggins bus as it moves from stop to stop across the state. That truck is being paid for by the Iowa State Bar Association, which supports Wiggins and every other judge who is up for retention on the ballot.
In a scene that’s likely to play itself out again and again this week, the “No Wiggins” group met with supporters and media and said their piece In Des Moines. Immediately following, the pro-retention bar association group held their own news conference as a counter-point a couple hundred yards away.
“We know the bar association is going to do the chicken thing, and they’re going to follow us around because they don’t have what it takes to develop their own tour,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a three-time candidate for governor and CEO of the Family Leader.
As bizarre as the dueling campaign setup may seem, however, supporters on each side say the issues at hand are anything but trivial.
Iowans for Freedom say the Varnum decision allowed the court to redefine marriage and was an egregious example of judicial activism.
“Even if you don’t agree with my views on marriage, think of an unelected judiciary running roughshod over the Constitution,” said Republican Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum, who joined the anti-Wiggins group on Monday.
He added all voters should be concerned because both liberal and conservative courts could push their values from the bench.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is expected to join up with the anti-Wiggins campaign later this week.
Vander Plaats compared the Varnum decision to the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Dred Scott, which ruled that African slaves were property, and Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.
“And it only took one decision to redefine marriage,” he said.
The pro-retention folks from the bar association think Vander Plaats and his ilk are trying to politicize the courts to an extent that Iowans don’t want.
“God bless Bob Vander Plaats, Mr. Santorum and others, but I’m afraid they’re misinformed,” said Des Moines attorney Guy Cook, president-elect of the Iowa State Bar Association. “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.”
Cook said Wiggins and all the other judges on the ballot deserve retention because they’ve received a majority vote from practicing attorneys who appeared in front of them. Wiggins received a 63.3 percent retention rating. The other Supreme Court justices’ scores were Edward Mansfield, 95.6 percent; Thomas Waterman 94.4 percent; and Bruce Zager, 93.3 percent.
Mansfield, Waterman and Zager, incidentally, were put on the court after three other Supreme Court justices who decided Varnum lost their seats in a 2010 retention vote where opposition also was drummed up by Vander Plaats and social conservative groups.
Dan Moore, a Sioux City attorney and former bar association president, said the Varnum decision wasn’t a redefinition of marriage, but the correct decision based on the equal-protection clause of the Constitution.
“We call upon Iowans to reject their use of prejudices and falsehoods and to reject their efforts to politicize our courts,” Moore said.