DES MOINES — An unprecedented vote to remove three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of the unanimous decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state was celebrated by conservatives as a popular rebuke of judicial overreach, even as it alarmed proponents of an independent judiciary.
The outcome of the election was heralded both as a statewide repudiation of same-sex marriage and as a national demonstration that conservatives who have long complained about “legislators in robes” are able to effectively target and remove judges who issue unpopular decisions.
Leaders of the recall campaign said the results should be a warning to judges elsewhere.
“I think it will send a message across the country that the power resides with the people,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor who led the campaign. “It’s we the people, not we the courts.”
But critics of the campaign, including those who see the courts as a protector of minority rights, said the politicization of uncontested judicial elections represented a danger.
“What is so disturbing about this is that it really might cause judges in the future to be less willing to protect minorities out of fear that they might be voted out of office,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law. “Something like this really does chill other judges.”
Replacements for the three ousted justices will be appointed by the governor from a slate of candidates nominated by a committee of lawyers and will have to stand for periodic retention votes, a system known as merit selection.
From its first decision in 1839, the Iowa Supreme Court demonstrated a willingness to push ahead of public opinion on matters of minority rights, ruling against slavery, school segregation and discrimination decades before the national mood shifted toward racial equality.
That legacy was cited in liberal corners here last year when the seven-member court voted unanimously to strike down a law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, making the state the first in the Midwest to permit same-sex marriage.
But the risk of leapfrogging — or ignoring — public opinion on controversial issues was brought into sharp relief Tuesday when voters chose to remove all three justices who were on the ballot seeking new terms.
Conservative groups this year launched similar campaigns in a number of the 16 states that use merit selection, targeting supreme court justices for rulings on abortion, taxes, tort reform and health care. Unlike the three in Iowa, however, those judges — in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois and Florida — were all re-elected.
The number of challenges and the success of the effort in Iowa has caused some concern that retention elections designed to be as apolitical as possible are becoming as bitterly contested as other races. This year far more was spent on campaigns in retention elections than was spent in the entire previous decade, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
The ouster was reminiscent of a retention election in California in 1986 that led to the removal of three Supreme Court justices who were portrayed as opposing the death penalty.
“Obviously it has an impact on the independence of judges and how they think of their role — I think that’s demonstrable,” said Joseph R. Grodin, a law professor who was one of the three California judges who lost a re-election bid. “But more than that,” he continued, “I think the damage is not on judges, but that courts will come to be seen and judges will come to be seen as simply legislators with robes.”
The most sustained effort to oust judges in this election cycle was in Iowa, where out-of-state organizations opposed to gay marriage, including the National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Association, poured money into the removal campaign. Judges face no opponents in retention elections and simply need to win more yes votes than no votes to go on to another eight-year term. In Iowa, the three ousted justices did not raise campaign money, and they only made public appearances defending themselves toward the end of the election.
Each of the three justices — Marsha K. Ternus, the chief justice; Michael J. Streit; and David L. Baker — received about 45 percent of the vote, making this the first time members of the state’s high court had been rejected by voters. The 71 lower court judges on the ballot all easily won re-election.
The justices’ removal will have no effect on same-sex marriage, which will remain the law.
The judges declined requests for interviews but released a statement that decried what they called “an unprecedented attack by out-of-state special interest groups.” The statement defended the system for selecting judges but offered what a veiled warning about populist impulses to remake the judiciary: “Ultimately, however, the preservation of our state’s fair and impartial courts will require more than the integrity and fortitude of individual judges, it will require the steadfast support of the people.”
The defeat was a bitter disappointment to much of the legal community here, which rallied behind the justices, and it was viewed with particular concern in the gay community, which has found state courts more sympathetic than state legislatures.
“A lot of time we start in the courts because they’re there to protect the minority against the tyranny of the majority,” said Carolyn Jenisen, executive director of One Iowa, an organization supporting gay rights, “Because they’re there to make tough decisions without regard to popular opinion.”
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