CEDAR RAPIDS — Some Iowa business leaders are concerned about the consequences of kicking out judges based on a special interest group’s political agenda, warning that if politics are pushed into Iowa courts, that could be the “first domino to fall” — nudging out the principles of fairness and impartiality, and forcing businesses and economic growth out of the state.
Iowa is one of 33 states where judges are chosen through a merit selection system. In states where judgeships are elected positions, incumbents and challengers launch campaigns and accept contributions just like other politicians do.
Pat Baird, retired AEGON president and CEO, said his company wouldn’t have moved to Iowa if it didn’t have fair and impartial courts. He said companies that have to deal with litigation want consistency in rule of law, rather than rulings influenced by campaign contributions.
“Impartial juries and judges follow the rule of law,” Baird said. “The merit selection system is designed to take out politics. We’ve had experiences in other state courts where judges are elected and plaintiff’s attorneys contribute to the judges’ campaigns.”
From a business perspective it’s important to know that legal precedent will be followed, said Neal Scharmer, vice president and general counsel for United Fire in Cedar Rapids. Judges should be committed to public service, not the political process, he said.
Larry Zimpleman, chairman, president and CEO of Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, said access to fair and impartial courts has been a key consideration when Principal has expanded.
Baird said he has had “nightmare” litigation experiences in other states where judges are elected. In West Virginia, Louisiana or Alabama, he said, it’s not unusual for AEGON as the defendant to be up against a plaintiff’s attorney who’d contributed to the judge presiding over the case. In one such case, he said, a $2,000 claim turned into a $32 million award for the plaintiff.
As for United Fire, “we’ve elected not to do business in certain states who have perceived inconsistencies in the courts,” Scharmer said.
Zimpleman agreed that politics and the judiciary are a dangerous combination.
“Our system isn’t broken” he said. “I also think this (attack on the judiciary) affects our reputation since the three justices (were removed) in 2010. A retention election isn’t a referendum on a judge’s decision. It’s should be based on their qualifications and overall performance.”
Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins is up for retention on Tuesday’s ballot, and conservative activists have targeted him for removal because he took part in the unanimous 2009 decision paving the way for same-sex civil marriage in Iowa. Three of his former colleagues were ousted in 2010 by a similar campaign funded by outside money from special interest groups.
Campaign leader Bob Vander Plaats said the movement isn’t trying to change the system to start electing judges.
“It’s about constitutional rights,” he said. “Look at the facts: Iowa has fallen in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranking of legal climate since the Varnum decision, from five in 2010 to 10 this year. I think they (business leaders) are misguided.”
“I’m surprised and disheartened by Mr. Vander Plaats, … who says he wants to be governor, to have such little disregard for the process. It’s outside money pushing political agendas. Kicking judges out isn’t how you solve it. If you disagree with the law, amend the constitution. There will be economic consequences.”