MAP: Iowa counties’ votes on judicial retention (counties in green voted to retain Wiggins)
Court watchers say it’s difficult to pinpoint why Iowa voters decided to retain Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins Tuesday just two years after three others who participated in the state’s landmark same-sex marriage ruling were ousted.
Does the 670,013 to 556,782 vote in Wiggins’ favor indicate Iowans are more accepting of same-sex marriage? Did the special interest groups behind both drives against retention err when they altered their message? Or did the pro-retention supporters just do a better job getting their message across?
One area of agreement is that the results are difficult to explain because the county-by-county voting was similar to 2010 — mostly urban areas in the eastern and central parts of the state voted “yes” and more rural areas voted “no.”
“One thing I think you can say with a high degree of certainty is the (Iowa State) Bar Association’s efforts made a big difference (this year),” Todd Pettys, University of Iowa School of Law professor, said Wednesday. “The bar was flat-footed in 2010 with a feeble effort to educate the public of its views on politicizing the courts.”
Pettys said this year the association organized the high-profile bus tour shadowing conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats’ statewide “No Wiggins” bus tour. Members of the voluntary organization actively went out and talked to people about the same-sex marriage decision and provided education on how the merit selection and retention system for judges works and their views on how important it is to keep courts fair and impartial.
Guy Cook, Des Moines attorney and president-elect of the state bar, said he remembered what a friend had said after 2010 that “you went to a knife fight with a law book and I didn’t want that to happen again.” Cook agreed with Pettys, saying the bus tour was a big asset because it allowed members to have discussions with voters and immediately counter the message of the anti-retention group.
Cook and Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, the state’s leading gay rights group, pointed to election results in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota as evidence that views on same-sex marriage have shifted across the nation and in Iowa. Maine and Maryland passed initiatives in support of marriage equality and an anti-marriage equality amendment was defeated in Minnesota.
“Two years ago, I think some were so surprised by Iowa’s same-sex ruling, but couples married and the world didn’t come to an end,” Cook said. “I think there’s recognition by those against same-sex marriage that a “no” vote doesn’t change the constitution, so don’t throw a guy out for doing his job.”
Red Wing said the retention vote “sent a strong message to Mr. Vander Plaats and his friends at the National Organization for Marriage — Iowans are proud of our state that values equal protection and all families.”
Pettys said Vander Plaats’ argument may have lost some traction because over the course of the campaign he claimed the issue wasn’t just about the same-sex marriage decision, it was about “judicial activism.” But the argument has to be attached to the same-sex issue or it’s just a “charge you make when judges make decisions you don’t like,” Pettys said.
Cook said now the big question is “did we put the genie back in the bottle” or will Vander Plaats mount another campaign in 2016 when the other remaining justices who ruled in the same-sex marriage case are up for retention.
Vander Plaats wasn’t available for comment Wednesday.
Greg Baker, executive director of Iowans for Freedom, one of the groups that led the unsuccessful campaign against Wiggins, said he didn’t know what the group’s plans would be but there would likely be “some form of retention effort” in 2016.
“It will be dependent on what the judges do,” Baker said. ”One thing that is obvious is that a lot of Iowans are not confident in the courts. The courts have a credibility issue and they need to restore impartiality.”
Baker said the anti-Wiggins groups expected a tight race and knew it would be more difficult during a presidential election year. The county-by-county votes were similar to 2010 but there was a “wave of democratic support” for President Barack Obama and more people voted, he said.