Wiggins' retention rating lowest in 50 years for Iowa Supreme Court justice

Iowa Bar Association rating: 63 percent

James Q. Lynch
Published: October 9 2012 | 7:49 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 1:41 am in

Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins’ 63 percent favorability rating from fellow attorneys is the lowest score earned by a member of the court in 50 years of judicial retention elections, according to a group calling for his ouster.

Since the Iowa State Bar Association helped put the retention process in place in 1962, no Supreme Court justice has earned less than a 72 percent retention score until this year, according to Iowans for Freedom, a project of the conservative Christian group The Family Leader.

Former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus earned that 72 percent ranking in 2010. She and two other justices, who, like Wiggins, were part of the unanimous 2009 Varnum vs. Brien decision striking down a state law banning same-sex marriage, were voted off the court in 2010. About 54 percent of Iowa voters opposed their retention.

Wiggins is one of four Iowa Supreme Court judges up for retention this year. He is the only one on the ballot who participated in the Varnum decision.

Tamara Scott, co-chairwoman of Iowans for Freedom, questioned how the bar association could call for Wiggins’ retention after giving him such a low score.

“The Iowa State Bar Association has stressed the importance of having the best court system in the nation, yet it is encouraging Iowa voters to settle for mediocrity by retaining the worst Supreme Court judge in the past 50 years,” Scott said. “The fact is this D minus rating wasn’t a poll conducted by Iowans for Freedom. It is attorneys from the Iowa State Bar Association – in other words, the closest thing possible to a jury of his peers – who in their review gave Wiggins the worst retention score in the history of the process.”

Actually, a Polk County district Court judge received a retention rating of 61 percent from the bar this year.

Bar association President Cindy Moser has called Iowa for Freedom’s argument a mis-characterization of the retention score.

The questions on the survey, Moser explained on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, go to judicial temperament, integrity, the quality of the decisions and the work product that the judge produces and his or her commitment to public service.

“In this instance, in every category that Justice Wiggins was rated he was rated in a high satisfactory range,” she said.

She rejected the suggestion that 63 percent represents a D minus and called the score an indication of strong support from attorneys.

“This isn't a classroom exercise,” Moser said. “The question whether a judge or justice should be retained is more in the nature of a poll. A 63 percent vote is a strong vote in support of retention.”

It’s much more than the 51 percent Wiggins needs on the Nov. 6 ballot to remain on the court, she said, adding that any politician would be “delighted” to get 63 percent of the vote.

Not only is his score the lowest in 50 years, but Bob Vander Plaats, Iowans for Freedom chairman, noted that in 2004 Wiggins earned an 82 percent rating from attorneys.

“His trend line since 2004 is one of steep decline,” Vander Plaats said. “In other words, unless we remove him, the only judge worse than Wiggins in 2012 is probably going to be Wiggins in 2020.”

Iowans for Freedom maintain that Wiggins and his six colleagues legislated from the bench and tried to amend the state Constitution in their decision to allow same-sex marriage.

Moser, however, rejected that argument, arguing the justices simply applied the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution and found as it requires that in order to treat all Iowa citizens equally under the law it was necessary to permit same-sex marriage.

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