Plurality of Iowans support retaining Supreme Court justices, poll shows

Results show shift in public sentiment since judge ouster vote in 2010

April 1, 2014 | 12:22 am

Four Iowa Supreme Court justices up for a retention vote in the Nov. 6 election have a path to keeping their seats on the state’s highest court, according to a statewide poll of likely voters.

The statewide poll of 600 likely voters reflects a shift in public support for retaining the justices, including Justice David Wiggins, who was a part of the court’s unanimous decision to strike down a state ban on same-sex marriage.

In 2010, voters threw out three justices who were part of that decision, including Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, after a campaign was launched against them because of the court’s 2009 ruling on same-sex marriage. The three justices appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad to replace them are on the November ballot, along with Wiggins. He has been on the court since 2003.

The Republican wave in 2010 and “asymmetrical spending” by the opponents of marriage equality created an unusually hostile electorate in 2010, according to Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which conducted the poll Aug. 22-26.

“The environment is quite different today; the Iowa Supreme Court Justices are poised for a victory in November,” Greenberg predicted.

The poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 4 points, found a plurality of voters – 47 percent – now favor retaining the four justices who will be on the ballot this fall. Another 24 percent favor ousting the justices and 25 percent are not sure.

The poll found a “massive” shift in public support for same-sex marriage since the 2010 vote, Greenberg said.

She found 48 percent of Iowans now support the Varnum v. Brien decision and marriage equality. That’s an increase from 37 percent in 2009.

Also, Greenberg found little anger at the Supreme Court as a result of the decision. The court gets a net positive rating -- 41 percent favorable, 18 percent unfavorable -- and a plurality approve of its job performance.

That doesn’t guarantee that voters will keep Wiggins and his colleagues on the bench, but it is welcome news to Justice Not Politics, which commissioned the poll and supports retaining the justices.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands, but this time it's a fight we can win,” said Connie Ryan Terrell, chairwoman of Justice Not Politics. “Iowans are proud of the terrific work being done by our courts and judges, and the polling clearly shows that we want to keep politics out of our courts.”

However, the poll results won’t change the position of the Republican Party of Iowa, which is advocating the ouster of Wiggins.

“The Republican Party of Iowa is committed to traditional marriage between one man and one woman, and believes that voters, not unelected judges, should have the ultimate say on the matter,” said State Chairman AJ Spiker.

The results show Iowans’ attitudes about same-sex marriage have changed considerably since 2009 when a poll for One Iowa found 37 percent agreed with the court’s decision and 58 disagreed. Now, Greenberg said, Iowans agree with the decision by a 48 percent to 43 percent margin. The shift crosses partisan lines with a 16 point increase in support among Democrats and a 9 point shift among Republicans. The biggest shift was a 52 point increase in support among independents who are more than one-third of the Iowa electorate.

The poll also found an overwhelming majority believe that the court should be insulated from political pressure as it upholds the Iowa Constitution and should base its decisions on an impartial review of the facts.

Although nearly a third of voters were unaware of the retention vote, among the most informed voters, support for marriage equality and retention is high.

Iowa Supreme Court justices stand for retention every eight years. Justices who receive a simple majority of “yes” votes may serve another full term.

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