DES MOINES, Iowa – Judicial elections were once sedate, bottom-of-the-ballot affairs, frequently overlooked by voters focused on the bigger-name races.
But there was nothing low-key about the message on a bus that toured Iowa recently, bearing the face of state Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins and a giant NO. Nor was there anything decorous about the contingent of lawyers that trailed with a smaller truck urging Yes Iowa Judges.
A Christian conservative group, Iowa for Freedom, is campaigning to remove Wiggins from the bench because of his vote in a unanimous 2009 decision overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
The cause has drawn two figures not normally interested in the workings of a state court system: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
I didn’t come here for any reason other than to encourage the people of Iowa to do what you do so well, Santorum said. And that is to speak loudly to the country.
In a campaign launched in 2010, conservative activists unseated three of the seven jurists who ruled that the state’s Defense of Marriage Act violated the equal-protection clause of Iowa’s constitution. Organizers called their effort, backed by national conservative groups that contributed nearly $1 million, a warning to activist judges seeking to legislate from the bench.
Their success stunned the legal community and deepened concerns about the injection of money and politics into courthouses. Judges in Alaska, Colorado, Illinois and Kansas faced similar retention fights in 2010, although only in Iowa did the jurists lose their jobs.
This year in Florida, a group with tea party ties and super-PAC support is seeking to oust three judges on the state Supreme Court who refused to allow a ballot measure opposing a key provision in President Obama’s health care plan.
A Des Moines Register poll late last month found 49 percent of likely voters in favor of keeping Wiggins on the bench and 41 percent opposed, compared with 32 percent in favor of retaining the three judges in 2010.