Two years ago we urged North Iowa voters to check the “yes” box on the issue of whether three Iowa Supreme Court justices should be retained in office. They were the subject of what we thought was an ill-advised, poorly reasoned and dangerous effort by a group of religious conservatives to kick the three out of office because they disagreed with one of the court’s decisions.
In 2009, the seven members of the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously that an Iowa law defining marriage as only between one man and one woman was unconstitutional. That decision, in effect, legalized gay marriage in the state.
In Iowa, judges are appointed to their positions, but they go up for a retention vote at regular intervals so the people can decide if they should remain in office (every eight years for Supreme Court justices and every six years for other judges).
Three state Supreme Court justices came up for a retention vote in 2010. They were booted from office by the voters of Iowa. Not for malfeasance. Not for incompetence. Not for doing anything illegal. They were kicked out of office for doing their jobs to the best of their ability; for following the oath they took when they accepted the positions.
Fast-forward two years. Same issue. Same “vote no” campaign fostered by the same groups. Different justice.
This year Justice David Wiggins is the fourth member of that original court to come up for a retention vote.
Again a group lead by Bob Vander Plaats, largely funded with out-of-state money, is urging that Iowans rise up against “liberal, activist judges” who want to impose their own beliefs over the will of the people.
The arguments we raised two years ago still apply and bear repeating.
Whether you are in favor of legal same-sex marriage or not (we are in favor), voting out justices based on the popularity of their decisions rather than their competence in office introduces a troubling level of politics and potential coercion into the state’s judicial system that up to now had been a model of fairness for the rest of the nation.
If judges are voted out of office for unpopular decisions, then the likelihood arises that judges will consider the political implications of their decisions rather than the law when making those decisions.
The possibility also arises that justices could begin actively campaigning to retain their jobs, and that means raising funds to campaign and that means people, businesses and other organizations that donate to a judge’s campaign could expect considerations in return.
As we wrote two years ago, no judge should ever decide a case based on how he thinks it might affect his chances to keep his job. Our judges need to look at the facts in a case and apply the law, not stick a finger in the air to measure how the political winds are blowing.
The simple fact is that the 2009 ruling on the state’s marriage law was a legal opinion, not a moral one. The members of the Supreme Court at that time were Republicans and Democrats, and had been appointed by Republican and Democratic governors.
They made their ruling because the state marriage law did not fit within the guidelines of the Iowa Constitution, not because they favored or didn’t favor same-sex marriage. Even some Republicans at the time acknowledged that the marriage law had problems, and probably would not withstand judicial review.
Justice Wiggins has does nothing that disqualifies him for his position on the bench. He should be retained in office.