Conservatives organizing "No on Wiggins" Iowa judicial retention campaign

Bob Vander Plaats confirmed over the weekend that he will lead the campaign against retaining Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who concurred in the 2009 Varnum v Brien decision on civil marriage rights. Earlier this month, Republican Party of Iowa Chair A.J. Spiker called on Iowans to vote against Wiggins as well.  

Background: under the judicial selection system Iowans approved in 1962, state judges are subject to periodic retention votes. Judges serving on the district courts, the Iowa Court of Appeals, or the Iowa Supreme Court need a simple majority of “yes” votes to remain in office. The seven Iowa Supreme Court justices are on the statewide ballot for the first general election following their appointment by the governor, and every eight years thereafter.

Three of the seven justices who were part of the unanimous Varnum v Brien ruling, including its author Mark Cady, were retained in November 2008. They will not face another retention vote until 2016.

In November 2010, a majority of Iowans voted against retaining Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker. Neither Republican Party leaders nor gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad (who had appointed Ternus and Cady) called for voting against the justices. Instead, Vander Plaats took the lead role in the campaign against retention shortly after losing the Iowa GOP’s primary for governor. Vander Plaats’ Iowans for Freedom coalition ran extensive statewide television advertising urging Iowans to vote no on so-called activist judges. Out-of-state socially conservative groups like the National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Association spent nearly a million dollars supporting that campaign. Newt Gingrich helped raise roughly $200,000 for the anti-retention campaign as well.

A coalition supporting Iowa’s merit selection system for judges got off the ground late in 2010, as did a campaign explicitly advocating for yes votes on Ternus, Streit, and Baker. Neither alliance came close to matching the campaign spending by the anti-retention forces. Generally poor turnout for Iowa Democrats and high turnout rates among Republicans also affected the election results. Never before had Iowans voted against retaining Iowa Supreme Court justices.

Wiggins, appointed by Governor Tom Vilsack in 2003, will be one of four Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot this November. Iowans will also be asked to vote on retaining the three justices Branstad appointed to replace Ternus, Streit, and Baker: Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, and Bruce Zager.

Speaking at a “Family Leadership Summit” in Waukee on August 11, Vander Plaats made clear that Iowans for Freedom will target only Wiggins.

“When you raise your hand and you swear an oath to the constitution and then you go outside of the constitution, outside of your separation of powers, to legislate from the bench, to execute from the bench, to amend the constitution from the bench – we, the people must hold a person like that in check,” Vander Plaats said. “And that’s why we’re going to say, ‘Vote no on Judge Wiggins.'”

Vander Plaats has struggled to stay relevant in statewide politics (no one cares whether the governor tacitly approves of a conference on bullying). The “No on Wiggins” campaign will generate a lot of publicity–and money.

Speaking from the stage in the church’s auditorium, Vander Plaats noted that one person in the audience had already pledged $1,000 to the retention campaign effort, and asked others to do the same.

He was followed by National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown, who told the crowd his organization – which lobbies nationally against same-sex marriage – would match up to $100,000 in contributions for anti-Wiggins effort.

The Republican Party of Iowa’s fundraising has fallen through the floor since A.J. Spiker replaced previous chairman Matt Strawn. I believe financial need prompted Spiker’s recent public call for a no vote on Wiggins. From Spiker’s e-mail blast of August 1:

This morning I issued a formal press release below on the upcoming retention vote of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins. Along with a handful of activist judges, Justice Wiggins chose to disregard legal precedent when he voted to re-define the definition of marriage within the state of Iowa.

On behalf of the Republican Party of Iowa I stated the Iowa GOP’s position that Justice Wiggins must be removed from his post and not retained through this coming election.

As a Republican I am a strong believer in the rule of law and the need for Iowans to have the final say on how marriage is defined. It should be up to us as voters to decide how this sacred institution is defined and not a small group of judges. The people of Iowa are tired of increasingly powerful bureaucrats arrogantly and deceitfully instituting law when they have no justification or ability to do so.

I call on all Republicans in Iowa to vote, “No” on the retention of Justice David Wiggins in this coming November election. We have an obligation to protect the rule of law and the values we believe in and have the opportunity to do so by removing those with blatant disregard for the law.

Help advance the principles of the Iowa GOP by donating $20, $50, or $100 today

Just as we did in 2010, Iowa Republicans have the power to remove activist judges who abuse their authority and allow their pride to influence their responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

Please join me in voting, “No” on the retention of Justice Wiggins and spread the word to friends and family about the need to remove this arrogant and misguided judge. This will be the only opportunity to hold these unelected activist judges accountable.

Together we can ensure Iowa is a state that respects our Constitution and will not stand for political bureaucrats who believe they are above the law.

Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson posted the full text of Spiker’s press release and several responses. Wiggins released this written statement:

Our system is built on checks and balances between independent branches of government.  Two of the branches are designed to be political.  It is unfortunate that Mr. Spiker apparently thinks that all three branches should be political.  

I have always viewed the role of the judiciary as limited and I am proud of my work in writing opinions and helping resolve the issues that are brought before the court.

Ternus, Streit, and Baker chose not to campaign for their own retention in 2010. The New York Times editorial board recently urged Wiggins not to “make the same high-minded mistake.”

Whether or not Wiggins campaigns to keep his job, he will have more support than his colleagues had in 2010. The LGBT advocacy group One Iowa has been raising money for a pro-retention campaign, and the Iowa State Bar Association will run ads this fall urging Iowans to retain all the judges on the ballot, association president Cynthia Moser told journalists last week.

Moser calls Wiggins and the other 74 judges who’re on the November ballot “well-qualified” for that role.

“We don’t think that judges should be subject to those kinds of political pressures,” Moser says.

The Iowa State Bar Association chose an earlier release date for its survey charting the opinions Iowa lawyers have of judges and justices who’re up for retention. The group also has a booth at the Iowa State Fair to tout the state’s judicial system.

“We want Iowans to know that the judges standing for retention on November 6 are high-quality individuals and to a person they deserve to be retained on the bench,” Moser says.

The Iowa State Bar Association posted results from its latest member survey here. A majority of respondents supported retaining all of the judges on the ballot, but Wiggins received significantly lower support than did the new Supreme Court justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Zager. Moser suggested that the Varnum v Brien marriage ruling was a factor in Wiggins’ rating of only 63 percent on that survey. I suspect that how Wiggins ran the State Judicial Nominating Commission in December 2010 and January 2011 contributed to the result. Only one woman was on the short list of nine judicial nominees that commission sent to Governor Branstad, even though many highly qualified women applied for the Supreme Court positions.

Branstad is walking a fine line on this year’s retention vote. He made clear that Spiker did not consult him before committing the Iowa GOP to all-out war against Wiggins. The governor didn’t endorse the no vote on Wiggins, but nor did he disavow the effort to oust him: ”

“My position has always been, as it was in the 2010 election, that this retention of judges is a decision to be made by the voters and that I should not try to influence people’s decision,” Branstad says, “that they ought look at each individual justice, based on their record, and determine whether or not they as an individual voter think they should be retained.”

In April 2011, Branstad publicly criticized the way Wiggins treated some applicants for the Supreme Court vacancies.

Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman wants “responsible” conservative leaders to stand up to the anti-retention forces.

Again, the same-sex marriage issue in Iowa, from a judicial standpoint, is settled. But what’s not settled is whether we’re going to stand by while folks like Spiker and his allies dishonestly bully our courts when they issue rulings based on law, arguments and evidence, but fail to consider the Republican Party’s platform or the spiteful, selective biblical stylings of the righteous right. […]

“My position has always been, as it was in the 2010 election, that this retention of judges is a decision to be made by the voters and that I should not try to influence people’s decision,” Gov. Terry Branstad said last week, refusing to give his own opinion.

“I can tell you I am going to take the same posture I did on the effort to remove the three last time. That is a state issue, and I am going to concentrate on federal issues,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley when asked about the retention issue recently.

I’m not saying these guys have to endorse same-sex marriage. But Branstad has a law degree and appointed scores of judges over the years using this nomination/retention process. Grassley is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and helped Regis grad J. Paul Oetken become the first openly gay American to be confirmed as a federal judge. I believe, deep down, they both recognize Spiker’s call as reckless folly. They just can’t seem to summon the fortitude to get past the politics.

I’m not convinced that deep down, Branstad and Grassley are the least bit concerned about the anti-retention campaign. For decades, Republican elected officials have enjoyed the collateral benefits from social conservatives’ outrage over the hot topic of the day. This year’s GOTV against Wiggins is just the latest installment.

A few retired Iowa Republican elected officials have condemned the No on Wiggins campaign, namely former State Senator Jeff Angelo and former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning. I’ll be shocked if even one current GOP office-holder joins their ranks.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

About the Author(s)


  • Wiggins is lucky

    but Wiggins received significantly lower support than did the new Supreme Court justices Mansfield, Waterman, and Zager. Moser suggested that the Varnum v Brien marriage ruling was a factor in Wiggins’ rating of only 63 percent on that survey. I suspect that how Wiggins ran the State Judicial Nominating Commission in December 2010 and January 2011 contributed to the result.

    to have OneIowa to hide behind. The women were treated like political pawns in the effort to “embarrass” Branstad. Wiggins would not get my vote for retention.

    63% is so nominal that his colleagues obviously don’t think much of him, regardless.

    I’ve become tired of the whole “single-issue” attitude from LGBT groups. In MD, marriage equality “by popular consent” is all but a slam dunk. Yet, the “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force” structured an anti-gambling campaign in Maryland so it wouldn’t have to disclose which donors are underwriting an effort to keep a gambling measure off the ballot. Here is a copy of the mailer for those who like to look at mail persuasion pieces. Given that the casinos are coming to my county, I am irritated by the attitude that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. We already have two other contentious ballot issues — DREAM Act and the redistricting map — so it’s going to be messy, regardless.

    Similarly, I have a hard time giving Wiggins a pass just because BVP is an ass. In my view, women should not be put through a farce and de facto excluded due to a political judge. If Wiggens doesn’t like BVP’s shenanigans — and who could blame him — he should have kept politics out of the judicial nominations.

  • Hmm

    I guess Spiker really isn’t much of a Libertarian even though he was an admirer of Ron Paul-or does he just want to make sure that the money keeps flowing in?

    I guess Spiker would say we are dealing with this on a state by state basis.  

  • Justice Not Politics

    Justice Not Politics is a truly bi-partisan organization dedicated to keeping politics out of Iowa’s judiciary.  Its co-chairs are Sally Pederson and Joy Corning, and here is its website:  Justice Not Politics.  There are also on Facebook.