On the bus, but out of context

Todd Dorman
Published: September 26 2012 | 12:38 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:02 am in

A variation of the above image from the No Wiggins website was slapped big and bold on the “No Wiggins” bus that was tooling around our fair state this past week. It’s also front-and-center on the group’s brochures and literature.

Quite a damning quote. But where did it come from?

Well, it was pulled from last year’s public interviews between the Judicial Nominating Commission, chaired by Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, and applicants for three vacant seats on the state’s highest court. The seats needed filling after 2010’s retention vote ousted a trio of justices who joined a unanimous decision in 2009 striking down Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriages. Wiggins also joined that decision, and now he’s a target for ouster in November.

Wiggins was interviewing University of Iowa law Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig. The quote comes from the first question Wiggins asks. Here's a link to the full video. And here’s my transcript of the exchange at issue:

Wiggins: “Professor, I need to ask this question.”

Onwauchi-Willig: “Of course.”

Wiggins: “And you know what that question is.”

Onwauchi-Willig: “I know what the question is.”

Wiggins: “You’re not licensed to practice law in the state of Iowa. And the Iowa Constitution requires that you practice law, to be a member of the Iowa Bar. Um, and I know we’ve talked about you trying to get licensed before this, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. And our charge is to send people who meet the qualifications, either by age or by license to the governor. We have to send nine people. If we send you, without a license, we’re really sending eight people. So tell me, in your best way, how we can get around the Iowa Constitution and do that.”

Onwauchi-Willig: (laughing) “Well, if I were making the argument, the Iowa Constitution I think requires that I must be a member of the Iowa Bar before I become appointed. And I am confident that that would happen, that this would come through before I’m appointed. I can tell you it’s a two-step process. It goes to the National Conference of Bar Examiners first and then it comes here from which I understand it can get very quickly processed here. The National Conference of Bar Examiners, everything is in except for my criminal history check and I actually think Iowa is what is missing. I don’t have a record. It should come back quickly. And once they have all that information they can send it Dave York (?) can see it the very next day. I’m confident, I’m fairly confident, that it will happen in a timely fashion. And hopeful, very hopeful, that it will happen before you begin your deliberations.”

Wiggins: “And if it does, I’ll be glad to swear you in.”

Watching the interview, I think it’s clear that Wiggins was being mildly sarcastic about the significant hole in her qualifications. If you’ve ever listened to oral arguments, it also sounds a lot like a kind of probative question a justice would ask a lawyer.

Maybe you like a smart ass, and maybe you don’t. But the notion that Wiggins is really, genuinely looking for a way to circumvent the state constitution, as implied by those who slapped it onto the side of a campaign bus, is ridiculous. Activist judges? More like activist editing.

Incidentally, two days after this exchange, Onwauchi-Willig was admitted to the Iowa bar. The day after that, she was named as one of the nine nominees forwarded to Gov. Terry Branstad. The Grinnell College and University of Michigan law graduate previously practiced law in Cleveland and Boston before joining the faculty at the University of California Davis in 2003. She came to Iowa City in 2006.

I understand that pulling statements out of context is hardly unusual, especially now. But to make a distorted quote the rhetorical and visual centerpiece of your campaign is remarkable, even in our post-truth era. The No Wiggins forces are basically saying facts, schmacts, all that matters are anger and winning. Makes sense, since that’s the sort of court system they want.

It’s also lazy. Wiggins has written dozens of majority opinions and dissents. And yet, instead of finding something substantiative and accurate, his critics go with an easy falsehood.

And actually, Wiggins does have a real Onwauchi-Willig problem. The nominating commission he chaired made her the lone female nominee, even though a dozen well-qualified women applied. And our conservative governor declined to put a liberal law professor on the state’s high court. Didn’t see that coming. Now there is no woman on the court for the first time in 25 years, and Wiggins bears some of the responsibility.

I’m not suggesting Onwauchi-Willig isn’t accomplished and qualified. She clearly is. But sending Branstad nine men and one woman who had no chance of being appointed was a blunder. But that won’t fit on a bus or brochure, nor would it whip up the grand order of perpetual outrage. So it’s “activist judges!” again, with feeling.

So Wiggins has baggage. And his opponents are driving around in a big red distortion.

 

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