Friday, August 27, 2010

Throw the bums out?

Interesting article in the Washington Post about a campaign in Iowa to unseat three members of the Iowa Supreme Court, primarily in response to that court's unanimous decision last year overturning the state's law banning same-sex marriage.  Supporters of the campaign say they are trying to send a message about "judicial activism":
"We need to vote them off the bench to send a message across Iowa that we, the people, still have the power," said Bob Vander Plaats, a Republican politician who is spearheading the campaign. "Not only will it send a message here in Iowa, but it will send a message in California, in Arizona and across the country that the courts have really taken on too much power."
But Iowa has a "retention election" system for judges--so the three judges are not actually running against anyone.  Iowa voters will simply have a chance to vote them off the bench, and, in that case, they would be replaced by the governor after a merit selection process.

Some people think the campaign is an inappropriate use of the retention election process:

"I've used the word 'vengeance' before in describing what this campaign is about," said [Former Supreme Court justice Mark McCormick], now a lawyer in private practice. "I think it is a challenge to judicial independence. There's an effort being made to succeed in turning out of office these three good judges for an inappropriate reason."
He and others worry it will politicize Iowa's court system and have a chilling effect on judges nationwide.
My own guess is that the temperamentally conservative Iowa electorate will ultimately reject the campaign and vote to retain the justices.   I also think the nature of this campaign highlights the benefits of a retention-election system over a regular judicial election.  If these were regular judicial elections, this campaign would have drafted ideologically driven lawyer-candidates to run against the justices, who in turn likely would have forced awkward debates about decisions in specific cases.  Instead, the Iowa campaign is more or less forced to cloak itself in an general attack on "judicial activism"--which at least strikes me as a legitimate debate to have voters weigh in on in a judicial contest.

Mr. Gillette:  what are you thoughts, as a native Iowan? 

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