Panelists: Judicial retention, impeachment processes misused
Legislators and social conservative activists misused the state’s judicial retention elections in order to attack judges that upheld the rights of same-sex couples, several people familiar with the process say, and are now misusing the another process by pushing to impeach other judges from the bench.
Social conservative groups including the Iowa Family Policy Center (now known as The Family Leader), the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and Iowa for Freedom launched a major campaign in Iowa last year to remove through a retention vote three Iowa Supreme Court justices that took part in a unanimous finding that a legislative ban on same-sex marriage was a violation of the Iowa Constitution’s equal protection clause.
They were successful in doing so, and expectations are the remaining four justices that supported the unanimous decision will also face difficult retention votes in 2012 and 2016.
Rachel Paine Caufield, a Drake University politics professor, said retention elections were designed to guarantee against malfeasance: a public official doing something illegal or that is a violation of the public trust. But the way that system was used in 2010 was very different, and she expects Iowa and other states to see similar situations involving retention to arise again.
“It’s meant to serve a very similar check as impeachment,” she said of retention elections. “It was not originally intended to be used for ideological or partisan purposes.”
Iowa is often praised for its merit selection process in appointing judges, a system put in place in the 1960′s. Under that system, a 15-member judicial nominating commission composed of lawyers and non-lawyers recommend appointees to the governor based on quality, integrity and professional ability – rather than on political ability or connections.
But former state Sen. Jeff Angelo (R-Creston) said recently elected legislators were emboldened by the retention election and the conservative swing the state saw in 2010, which led to some filing motions to impeach those four remaining Iowa Supreme Court justices.
“The problem is that is a misuse of the procedure and that terminology,” Angelo said. “But in politics if you want that concept to take hold you just keep putting that in the public’s mind.”
Five Republican lawmakers filed resolutions to impeach those justices: Reps. Dwayne Alons (R-Hull), Betty De Boef (R-What Cheer), Glen Massie (R-Des Moines), Kim Pearson (R-Pleasant Hill), Tom Shaw (R-Laurens).
Those five, along with Reps. Royd Chambers (R-Sheldon) and Mark Lofgren (R-Muscatine) also filed a resolution to remove the judicial nomination process from the Iowa Constitution and instead allowing the governor to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court through appointment and Iowa Senate confirmation.
And state Sen. Kent Sorenson (R-Indianola) filed a resolution amending the Iowa Constitution so that Iowa Supreme Court justices are elected in statewide races, not appointed by a commission.
State Sen. Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines), a veteran legislator, said he’s seen a shift in the way the Iowa Legislature operates in the last few years. He noted an effort in the Iowa House to allow businesses to refuse to provide services to individuals who are gay.
“I remember thinking to myself this is not the Legislature and this is not the state I want to be from,” McCoy said.
McCoy said he was “so proud” when the Varnum decision came down but was “embarrassed” when voters turned away those three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010. But despite the ups and downs, he doesn’t think any impeachment process will move forward.
“But if it were…I would certainly be there reminding them that the eyes of the nation are upon Iowa,” he said.
Michael Gartner, a longtime newsman in Des Moines, said the reaction of social conservative groups to the court’s decision was more an act of vengeance than democracy.
“The situation the way I look at it was after the Varnum decision…the ultimate outcome was three terrific people lost their jobs,” Gartner said “But nobody really lost their rights. in fact, the rights of all of us were expanded.”
The comments were made at a series of panels held as part of an event called Defending Iowa’s Courts, held last week in Des Moines. About a dozen groups sponsored the event, including Lambda Legal, Justice not Politics, Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, One Iowa and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.
The panelists discussed legislative attacks against Iowa’s courts following the Varnum v. Brien decision; how those attacks threaten judges’ ability to rule fairly and impartially; and how to engage communities to defend the state’s current court system.