Group polled Iowans on Supreme Court retention vote (updated)

Leaders of the campaigns to oust Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 and 2012 have chosen not to engage in this year’s retention elections, which will decide whether the last three justices who participated in Iowa’s marriage equality ruling will stay on the bench.

However, the coalition formed to stop “extremists from hijacking Iowa’s courts” is taking no chances. Justice Not Politics commissioned a statewide poll last week to gauge voters’ attitudes toward Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht, as well as some issues related to controversial Iowa Supreme Court rulings.

A Bleeding Heartland reader contacted me on September 9 after receiving a telephone poll about the upcoming retention votes. This respondent is highly politically engaged but does not follow Iowa Supreme Court happenings closely, so found some of the questions difficult to answer. I am seeking more details about the questionnaire, so please post a comment or contact me at the e-mail near the lower right corner of this page if you can provide further information. UPDATE: Added below more details about the questions.

Respondents were asked for their views on each of the three justices who will be on the ballot and whether they have favorable opinions of Governor Terry Branstad and Bob Vander Plaats, the top figure in previous anti-retention campaigns. The survey also measured attitudes on some hot-button political topics, such as:

• marriage equality (which became a reality in Iowa because of the 2009 Varnum v Brien decision, authored by Cady and joined by Appel and Hecht)

• Planned Parenthood (a unanimous 2015 ruling struck down Iowa’s ban on using telemedicine for abortion services at some Planned Parenthood clinics)

• felon voting rights (Hecht and Appel would have struck down Iowa’s current broad lifetime ban on voting by people convicted of felonies)

• the possibility of parole for prisoners who committed murder as juveniles (all three justices up for retention have joined majority decisions invalidating life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders)

Knowing that the leading figures involved in past anti-retention campaigns are not committing significant resources to this year’s fight, I suspected people who support retaining Cady, Appel, and Hecht commissioned this poll. Indeed, Justice Not Politics chairperson Connie Ryan told me in a statement on September 10 that the coalition “is surveying Iowans to confirm their support of Iowa’s fair and impartial courts and commitment to ensure our judicial system remains free from political influence.”

Groups including the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, Iowa Association for Justice, labor groups and other civil rights groups formed Justice Not Politics in late September 2010, soon after television commercials urging Iowans to vote no on retaining three “activist” judges began running statewide. The justices declined to campaign on their own behalf. (Corrected: the Iowa State Bar Association is currently a partner of Justice Not Politics but was not involved in forming the coalition.)

Chaired by former Lieutenant Governors Joy Corning (R) and Sally Pederson (D), Justice Not Politics describes itself as

a broad based, nonpartisan coalition of organizations and Iowans across the political spectrum —- progressive to conservative; Republicans, Independents and Democrats —- all who are committed to protecting Iowa’s courts and our system of merit selection and retention. Working through the power of a coalition, we will effectively demonstrate the importance of impartial courts in all areas of life and the broad support of Iowans in protecting our judicial system. Justice Not Politics represents tens of thousands of Iowans that believe our courts should be free from political and financial influence. Iowans believe it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure Iowa’s courts remain fair and impartial.

Heavily outspent by social conservative groups and hampered by a national Republican wave, Justice Not Politics wasn’t able to generate enough “yes” votes to save the jobs of the Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot in 2010. The coalition was better prepared and better funded going into the 2012 campaign, when the other side opposed the retention of Justice David Wiggins.

The independent expenditure committee Justice Not Politics Action “engaged in robust pro-retention and educational efforts throughout Iowa,” including direct mail, online advertising, and a bus tour to shadow the “No Wiggins” bus. A Brennan Center for Justice report on judicial elections in 2011 and 2012 observed,

Spending in the Iowa Supreme Court retention election totaled more than $833,000 in 2012, down from the $1.4 million spent in 2010 but still substantial in a state with no recorded spending on high court races during the previous decade. Anti-retention groups spent $466,000 on the 2012 election, including $318,000 by Iowans For Freedom and $148,000 by the National Organization for Marriage. Both groups ran television ads. Pro-retention groups spent $367,000, including $320,000 by Justice Not Politics, $37,000 by the Iowa State Bar and roughly $5,000 each by Progress Iowa and the Human Rights Campaign. Justice Wiggins himself (like the three Iowa justices ousted in 2010) refused to raise campaign funds.

The largest single contributor to Justice Not Politics Action in 2012 was the Human Rights Campaign, which supports LGBT equality.

Although time is running out for any organized campaign against the Supreme Court justices, I expect Justice Not Politics will spend some money on direct mail and public events to remind Iowans to vote yes on retaining Cady, Appel, and Hecht. Here’s a picture of one mail piece from the 2012 campaign (taken from the Brennan Center report):

Justice Not Politics 2012 photo Screen Shot 2016-09-10 at 2.46.55 PM_zpsa2pmgnwh.png

I’m urging everyone I know to vote to retain all three justices, and not just because their ouster would allow a State Judicial Nominating Commission now packed with Republicans to recommend replacements to Governor Branstad.

I support retaining all judges who are not corrupt or incompetent, even if I disagree with how the judge approached some cases. Iowa adopted the merit-based selection and retention process in 1962 in order to replace judicial elections, where campaign spending can exert undue influence. We should not go down the road of making every retention vote a referendum on the latest contentious Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

UPDATE: Another person who received this phone call shared her recollections. Respondents were asked about both favorability and job performance of the FAMiLY Leader organization (social conservative umbrella group led by Bob Vander Plaats), Vander Plaats himself, Governor Branstad, the “Iowa Legislature” (survey did not specify whether this meant Iowa House or Senate), and Chief Justice Cady (not Appel or Hecht).

Some questions asked whether the respondents agreed with messages about the Iowa Supreme Court or positive and negative statements about issues like same-sex marriage and criminal justice reform.

The survey included more questions about Cady than about the other justices, which makes sense, since he is the chief and the author of the Varnum decision. Strangely, several questions mentioned Cady and Hecht but not Appel. This respondent didn’t realize Appel was also up for retention until later in the poll, when his name was mentioned along with the others in the context of a few negative statements (like “activist judges supporting abortion”). There was also a question along the lines of “judges supporting voter suppression by not allowing felons to vote.”

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