Suscribe to Weekly RiverCitiesReader.com Updates
* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Iowa Politics Roundup: O’Connor Touts Iowa’s Merit System of Selecting Judges PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 10 September 2010 12:35

Sandra Day O'ConnorRetired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Wednesday touted Iowa’s merit system of selecting judges and warned against injecting politics into the court system during a speech attended by about 500 business, labor, and civic leaders at the Hotel Fort Des Moines.

“We have to address the pressures that are being applied to that one safe place, the courtroom,” O’Connor said. “We have to have a place where judges are not subject to outright retaliation for their judicial decisions. That’s the concept. Sure they can be ousted, and that’s part of the system, but what the framers of our federal constitution tried to do was establish a system of judicial selection where the judges would not be subject to retaliation by the other branches for their judicial actions.”

O’Connor was in Iowa at the invitation of the Iowa State Bar Association, which was key in forming the group Iowans for Fair & Impartial Courts. The group’s efforts come as another group – Iowa for Freedom, led by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats – is working to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of the unanimous decision legalizing same-sex marriages.

The retired justice said she and Supreme Court Justice David Souter were like-minded on the topic. “We both looked at the court in our country, in our community, as the one safe place where a citizen can have a fair and impartial hearing to resolve a legal issue,” O’Connor said. “And we have to keep that in our country, and the place we have to keep it is in the heartland of the country.”

O’Connor said there are threats to the court system by about 20 states that still have openly partisan elections to select judges, with vast amounts of campaign contributions coming into the courtrooms. She said it’s eroding the faith in the court system and urged Iowa to stay the course. “Iowa is probably going through a stressful time now,” she said. “Just don’t throw out the system because at times it’s under stress. And I know you won’t do that.”

Among those attending Wednesday’s event were Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, First Lady Mari Culver, Attorney General Tom Miller, Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, and State Auditor David Vaudt.

Panelists at the event said if Iowans vote this November to reject three Iowa Supreme Court justices based on their April 2009 decision legalizing same-sex marriages, it would begin the deterioration of Iowa’s judicial system.

The panelists said judicial-retention votes such as the one this November should be about the fitness of judges over a broad spectrum, not about a single decision or about raising large sums of money.

Vander Plaats put his own spin on O’Connor’s comments, saying that taking politics out of the judicial process is exactly what he’s after in his effort.

“We believe it has been politicized, and that is why we have the retention vote,” Vander Plaats said. “The retention vote is an accountability mechanism. When court gets out of balance, the people then have a say and can rein it in. The process becomes political in our opponents’ eyes when the people rise up to exercise their freedom of speech as protected by the Constitution and the courts.”

GOP Leads Charge for Constitutional Convention

Despite two Republican bloggers leading the charge for passage of a constitutional convention this fall and Iowans for Tax Relief contemplating its involvement, the ballot issue has strong opponents on both sides of the aisle.

“My impression is it does not have a good chance,” said Mark Kende, director of the Drake Constitutional Law Center. “There’s a little dissatisfaction among some in the electorate, with the Supreme Court decision [legalizing same-sex marriages]. I don’t think that’s a majority of the electorate. ... I don’t get a sense of a groundswell.”

The Iowa Constitution was written in 1857 and has been amended 47 times. The question of whether to hold a constitutional convention is put to Iowa voters every 10 years, but it was only approved once – in 1920. A vote for a constitutional convention failed 68 to 32 percent in 2000, 73 to 27 in 1990, and 61 to 39 in 1980, according to data from the Iowa secretary of state’s Web site.

The not-for-profit 501(c)(4) group that’s encouraging Iowans to vote for the constitutional convention this year is named Call the Convention. Its president is Nathan Tucker, a Davenport attorney who writes for The Iowa Republican blog. Its vice president is Craig Robinson, the founder and editor-in-chief of TheIowaRepublican.com, who was political director of the Republican Party of Iowa during the 2008 caucuses.

“There are a number of amendments that need to be passed, and the legislature has shown an unwillingness to do it,” Tucker said. “A convention is needed to bypass the legislature and get the matter into our own hands.”

A recent poll by The Iowa Republican showed that 42 percent of 500 likely voters surveyed supported calling the constitutional convention, while 36 percent opposed it. The poll with Concordia Group was taken July 25 and 28 by Voter Consumer Research and had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

“We see voters [are] paying more attention and are more concerned about their wallets as government continues to spend money,” Tucker said. “People are also frustrated that they haven’t had a chance to vote on marriage. There’s a general frustration among voters.”

Vander Plaats said constitutional conventions concern him and added that his group will stay focused on the judicial-retention issue. “If we confuse it or make it more difficult than it is, it will only dilute our effort ... ,” he said. “In my view it is a reckless proposition, and you’re opening up the Constitution. You’re opening up the entire constitution. I’m concerned about that.” He added that “I would be very surprised if a people vote for a constitutional convention. I would be shocked.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) does not appear to be too concerned about a constitutional convention. “That is a bridge we will cross if it passes,” he said. “If it does, we will do things that are good public policy.”

Democratic goals for constitutional amendments could range from environmental issues to the minimum wage, he said. “It will give me a host of opportunities that I haven’t had in a long time,” said Gronstal, who appeared to talk about the issue tongue-in-cheek and said he isn’t fighting those pushing for a convention.