The retention election results for Iowa Supreme Court justices were a particularly low point on a generally dismal night. Never before had Iowans failed to retain a Supreme Court justice. Thanks to one unpopular ruling, unofficial results show Chief Justice Marsha Ternus received 45.0 percent yes votes and 55.0 percent no votes. Justice David Baker received 45.75 percent yes and 54.25 percent no. Justice Michael Streit received 45.6 percent yes and 54.4 percent no. Ternus spent 17 years on the high court, four of them as chief justice. Streit served for nine years and Baker just two.
It was bad luck that so many justices came up for retention in the first year following the Varnum v Brien ruling. The Des Moines Register reported that only Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins is up for retention in 2012, and the other three current justices won’t face the voters until 2016. The last group includes Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the decision striking down Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act.
All lower-court Iowa judges appear to have been retained, including three who were targeted by some social conservatives. In Polk County, fifth circuit District Court Judge Robert Hanson received 66.34 percent yes votes, and District Court Judge Scott Rosenberg received 68.84 percent yes votes. Robocalls paid for by a conservative group urged Polk County residents to reject both judges. Hanson issued the lower-court ruling in Varnum v Brien in August 2007. Rosenberg signed a waiver allowing two men to marry after Hanson’s decision was announced, before an appeal put a stay on that decision.
In Sioux City, third circuit District Court Judge Jeffrey Neary received 58.5 percent yes votes. Conservatives tried and failed to oust him in 2004 and again this year, because in 2003 he granted a divorce to a lesbian couple who had a civil union from Vermont. At the time, Neary didn’t realize both parties seeking that divorce were women.
The judicial retention vote doesn’t affect same-sex couples’ marriage rights in Iowa. Voters rejected an initiative to call a constitutional convention, so the only way to overturn marriage equality would be to pass a constitutional amendment through the normal path. The new Republican majority in the Iowa House will approve a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal may or may not be able to keep that amendment from passing the Iowa Senate. If the legislature approves a marriage amendment in 2011 or 2012, a separately elected Iowa House and Senate would have to approve it again in 2013 or 2014 before it could appear on the 2014 general election ballot. At that point, the amendment would require a simple majority of yes votes statewide to be added to the Iowa Constitution.
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