Iowa votes on justice from ‘09 gay marriage ruling
DES MOINES — Voters were deciding Tuesday whether to keep Justice David Wiggins on the Iowa Supreme Court or throw him out of office for joining the landmark 2009 decision that legalized gay marriage.
Social conservatives angered by that ruling were hoping to oust Wiggins. In an unprecedented campaign two years ago, they helped defeat three of his colleagues.
Liberal groups and trial lawyers were trying to keep Wiggins on the bench. State Supreme Court justices must face voters the first year after they are appointed and then every eight years. Justices must receive a simple majority vote to stay in office.
The vote on Wiggins’ retention is considered a barometer for the country’s changing views on gay marriage and a flashpoint in the debate over the role of courts in American life.
Wiggins joined six colleagues in unanimously declaring a state law banning gay marriage violated the equal-protection clause of Iowa’s constitution, making Iowa the first Midwestern state to legalize gay marriage. Thousands of gay couples have wed in the state.
The backlash from conservatives, both in Iowa and nationwide, was fierce. Groups such as the National Organization for Marriage spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign against Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit in 2010, and about 55 percent of Iowa voters agreed to remove them from office.
Conservatives ran a similar campaign this year calling for Wiggins’ ouster during his retention vote, and the Iowa Republican Party also joined the effort.
“We won a state championship in 2010. We defeated three judges. We sent them a message on judicial activism and the people holding them accountable,” said Bob Vander Plaats, whose group, the Family Leader, led the anti-justice effort.
“Now we’ve got to go play the game all over again.”
Wiggins may benefit from increasing support for gay marriage in Iowa and a more organized pro-retention effort from groups such as the Iowa State Bar Association, which was urging voters to keep politics out of the judicial branch.
Another factor in Wiggins’ retention campaign was that he received a satisfactory — but relatively poor — performance review from attorneys. A Bar Association survey found that 63 percent of lawyers believed he should be retained, far lower than the other three newly appointed justices on the ballot, and gave him middling marks for his temperament and demeanor.
Wiggins was appointed in 2003 by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. If he is not retained for another eight-year term, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad will appoint a replacement next year from a slate of finalists chosen by a judicial nominating commission.
Wiggins honored Iowa’s long tradition in which justices do not raise money or actively campaign.
“I want to keep my job, believe me, but I will not jeopardize the integrity of the Iowa Supreme Court in the process,” he wrote in The Des Moines Register.
The three remaining justices who joined the 2009 ruling will face voters in future elections.