Iowa Supreme Court justices won't campaign for themselves

Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus confirmed on September 30 that she and her colleagues will not wage a campaign urging Iowans to retain them in office.

Ternus said she and justices David Baker and Michael Streit don't want to set an example for judges by campaigning and raising money.

"How would you feel, as a litigant, to appear in court and know that the opposing party's attorney gave money to the judge's re-election campaign and your attorney didn't? Is that the kind of system Iowans want? I just hope they think about it. This is way more important than whether any one judge is retained or not," she said.

I've talked to some people who are frustrated the Supreme Court justices aren't more actively defending themselves and their records. I admire them for honoring the principle that judges should not engage in election-style campaigns, even when their own jobs are on the line.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats is heading a campaign to oust the judges. His Iowa for Freedom organization has massive financial backing from the American Family Association and the National Organization for Marriage. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent on a statewide television commercial and radio advertising urging Iowans to vote no on retaining Ternus, Streit and Baker.

The Justice, Not Politics coalition formed recently to defend the judges and our current judicial system, but they won't be able to match the conservative groups' spending against the judges. The Iowa State Bar Association has created Iowans for Fair and Impartial Courts, but as a pending 501(c) organization, that group cannot explicitly urge Iowans to vote yes on retaining the Supreme Court justices.

Please remind your friends and relatives to turn the ballot over and vote yes on retaining the judges listed. All of them "are well qualified to remain as judges" according to the Iowa State Bar Association's survey of Iowa attorneys. Survey results were released on October 1. All 74 judges up for retention this year received "high marks" for "professionalism and demeanor" on the bench. The Des Moines Register listed the bar association's survey results for the three Supreme Court justices and all Polk County judges on the ballot.

All judges had more than 70 percent support from the attorneys, but Ternus' retention rating (72 percent) was lower than the ratings for Streit and Baker. In general, women judges receive lower retention ratings from the legal community than men on the bench. Ternus also made the news in the summer of 2009 when seven 19-year-olds, including her son, were arrested for drinking at a party outside her home. Her husband was charged with interference with official acts as Polk County sheriff's deputies broke up that party, but the charge was later amended to harassment of a public official.

UPDATE: Saturday's Des Moines Register offered another possible explanation for Ternus' slightly lower rating:

But the vote also follows a tight budget year for the courts. Ternus, who issues administrative orders as part of her duties, required clerk-of-court offices to reduce their public hours, and imposed courthouse closure days as a cost-cutting measure. Some court reporters were laid off.

"The chief justice is the person who addresses issues such as dealing with court's budget, or administrative issues in the court," Knutson said. "Certainly, she had to be the public face on some of those hard decisions."

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