How Iowa could have lost three Supreme Court justices in 2016

Remember how awful you felt on November 9, 2016, as you started to grasp what we were up against following the most devastating Iowa election in decades?

Would you believe the results could have been even worse?

Imagine Governor Terry Branstad appointing three right-wingers to the Iowa Supreme Court. It could have happened if conservative groups had targeted Chief Justice Mark Cady, Justice Brent Appel, and Justice Daryl Hecht with the resources and fervor they had applied against three justices in 2010.

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Election results thread: Dark days ahead

Polls just closed in Iowa. Considered a heavy favorite to win the electoral college, Hillary Clinton is in serious danger of losing the presidency. Results from swing states to the east suggest that Donald Trump is outperforming Mitt Romney in heavily white working-class and rural areas. That doesn’t bode well for our state, even if early vote numbers suggested Clinton might have a chance.

Most of the battleground state House and Senate districts are overwhelmingly white. Republicans have been able to outspend Democrats in almost all of the targeted races. We could be looking at a GOP trifecta in Iowa for the first time since 1998.

I’ll be updating this post regularly as Iowa results come in. The Secretary of State will post results here.

No surprise: the U.S. Senate race was called for Chuck Grassley immediately. He led all the late opinion polls by comfortable double-digit margins.

The rest of the updates are after the jump.

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A look at the campaign to retain Iowa's Supreme Court justices

The last three Iowa Supreme Court justices involved in the landmark 2009 marriage equality ruling are on the ballot this year: Chief Justice Mark Cady (author of the Varnum v Brien decision) and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht. However, this year’s Iowa judicial retention elections aren’t getting much attention, largely because social conservative groups decided not to engage heavily in the fight.

By this point in 2010, television commercials calling for a “no” vote on three Iowa Supreme Court justices had been on the air for six weeks. Bob Vander Plaats and allies were holding “Judge Bus” events across Iowa. In a radio ad, Representative Steve King urged listeners to “vote ‘no’ on Judges [Marsha] Ternus, [Michael] Streit and [David] Baker” to “send a message against judicial arrogance.” For about a month before the 2012 general election, conservative groups paid for tv ads asking Iowans to “hold [Justice] David Wiggins accountable for redefining marriage and legislating from the bench.”

In contrast, Vander Plaats and like-minded Iowans have made a lower-key case against Cady, Appel, and Hecht, largely relying on e-mail, social media postings, and letters to the editor. They probably realized a full-court press was unlikely to succeed in a presidential election year. Nor did they have a way to fund a more extensive anti-retention campaign, with the biggest donor from 2010 and 2012 staying on the sidelines this year.

Supporters of retaining the Supreme Court justices are taking no chances, though. Two groups are leading the fight to persuade and remind voters to mark “yes” for all Iowa judges, especially Cady, Appel, and Hecht. I enclose below a sampling of messages from the Justice Not Politics coalition and the Iowa State Bar Association.

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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.

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Key funder confirms no plans to go after Iowa Supreme Court justices

The National Organization for Marriage does not plan any “campaigning or intervention” in this year’s retention elections for three Iowa Supreme Court justices, Grant Rodgers reported for the Des Moines Register on September 5. The group was the largest single funder of the two previous anti-retention campaigns, contributing more than $635,000 to help oust three justices in 2010 and more than $148,000 to the unsuccessful effort to remove Justice David Wiggins two years later.

The last three justices involved in Iowa’s 2009 marriage equality ruling will be on the ballot this November: Chief Justice Mark Cady, author of the Varnum v Brien decision, and Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht. National Organization for Marriage spokesperson Joe Grabowski told Rodgers, “There’s nothing planned at this time,” adding that “We always keep our options open.”

Those options are fading fast, with early voting set to begin in Iowa on Thursday, September 29. The previous two anti-retention campaigns, led by social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, were well underway by the end of August 2010 and 2012. As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, Vander Plaats and his allies have not signaled any plan to go after the Iowa Supreme Court justices. It’s a remarkable admission of weakness on their part, but also a rational decision. Convincing voters to remove justices over same-sex marriage (now allowed in all 50 states) would be a tall order, especially in a presidential election year, which brings out hundreds of thousands more voters than a typical midterm election.

This year’s high-profile voting rights case could have provided fodder for an anti-retention campaign, but that scenario failed to materialize when Cady joined three other justices to uphold Iowa’s current broad lifetime ban on voting by most people convicted of felonies.

Rodgers discussed another possible peg for a campaign against Cady, Appel, and Hecht: all joined a 4-3 decision (authored by Appel), which held that “juvenile offenders may not be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution.” You can read the majority opinion, concurring opinions, and dissents in Iowa v. Sweet here. The majority ruling drew heavily on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which invalidated mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles, and several 2013 Iowa Supreme Court cases related to juvenile sentencing. Cady, Appel, and Hecht were all part of the majority in those 2013 cases.

Rodgers spoke to Lyle Burnett and Josh Hauser, who have experienced the tragedy of losing a loved one to a teenage killer. Both oppose retaining the three justices on the ballot this November, but “So far, neither Hauser nor Burnett have been contacted by any group or political organization that could elevate their personal campaigns.” Two victims’ advocates quoted in the Register said they do not support ousting Cady, Appel, and Hecht over this issue. It’s worth noting that neither the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in State v Ragland nor this year’s decision in Sweet guaranteed the release of any convicted murderer. Parole boards will still have discretion to approve or deny parole, based on expert assessments of whether the prisoner has been rehabilitated or still poses a danger to society.

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Smooth sailing for Iowa Supreme Court justices up for retention in 2016

Three of the seven Iowa Supreme Court justices who concurred in the historic Varnum v Brien ruling on marriage equality lost their jobs in the 2010 judicial retention elections. A fourth survived a similar campaign against retaining him in 2012.

The last three Varnum justices, including the author of the unanimous opinion striking down our state’s Defense of Marriage Act, will appear on Iowa ballots this November. At this writing, no one seems to be organizing any effort to vote them off the bench. Iowa’s anti-retention campaigns in 2010 and 2012 were well under way by the end of August, but the social conservatives who spearheaded those efforts have shown no interest in repeating the experience.

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