Iowa Politics Roundup: O’Connor Touts Iowa’s Merit System of Selecting Judges Print
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.


Gingrich “Taking Very Seriously” a Run at President

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says his decision on running for president in 2012 will be based on whether or not there is “a clear moral purpose” to run.

“The biggest question is whether the challenge to the country is clear enough that you could develop a national movement that would be prepared to really fundamentally change government towards less spending and more decentralization, rebuilding the work ethic, defending America,” Gingrich said.

Gingrich made his comments after delivering an address at a Team Iowa PAC luncheon at the Jack Trice Club in Ames. Gingrich was in Pella earlier in the day raising money for the Republican State Senate caucus and Thursday night traveled to Waterloo for an Iowans for Tax Relief reception.

Gingrich, who has been to the state four times this year, said the second part of his decision will be practical.

“I don’t have enormous personal wealth. I’m not in a position to go out and write a $100-million check to myself,” Gingrich said. “Is there a base for a campaign of ideas and a campaign of solutions and a campaign like this where you talk about basic things? If we conclude that you could build a movement and at a practical level build a campaign, then Callista and I are working right now to take our companies to be in a position to potentially say ‘yes’ by March or April.”

A bevy of other potential presidential candidates appeal to Gingrich including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, U.S. Senator John Thune of South Dakota, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

“It’s not a situation where there’s not going to be some really interesting people running and I would hope, if we ran, it would be a very positive, idea-oriented exchange,” Gingrich said. “Most of these folks are good friends of mine.”

A big part of Gingrich’s message to supporters Thursday was about the importance of electing the entire Republican ticket in Iowa. State-treasurer candidate Dave Jamison and secretary-of-state candidate Matt Schultz attended the event.

Gingrich didn’t say much about U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-New Hartford) or Republican gubernatorial nominee Terry Branstad during his speech, and afterwards stopped short of saying the two have their races wrapped up. But he did say they both have convincing leads at this point.

Culver Brings in a Kennedy for Campaign Help

Vicki Kennedy, the widow of former U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, on Thursday endorsed Governor Chet Culver’s re-election bid.

“Wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. The only thing that would have kept Teddy away is the fact that he’s no longer with us,” Kennedy told about 100 seniors at the Northwest Senior Center in Des Moines. “He loved Chet Culver. He loved him like his own son. The Kennedys and the Culvers ... go back to Teddy’s first day in college. He and John Culver were so close, and I remain so close to the Culver family.”

Kennedy said that Culver and her husband shared the qualities of optimism and looking to the future. “We’re in really tough times around the country,” she said. “But when you look at it, you still with the leadership of Chet Culver had balanced budgets every single year. You still have a budget surplus with the leadership of Chet Culver. Aren’t you lucky? And he’s had the vision and the forward thinking to make sure that more and more young children are covered by health care.”

Kennedy called the federal health-care-reform bill a “fabulous first step” but added: “We need leadership in the state to implement it. Leadership in the state that understands the importance for Iowans to make sure that these reforms happen in a good, systematic way, not leadership that wants to repeal it, sue to stop it from taking effect ... .”

Branstad, Culver Talk Veterans Issues

Branstad has unveiled proposals for veterans, including a state-income-tax exemption for active-duty personnel serving outside of Iowa, a new jobs bank to assist veterans in their search for employment, and better oversight of the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund.

“Since September 11, 2001, Iowa’s military members have been called upon for an inordinate amount of duty at a great cost to the soldiers and their families,” Branstad said. “At the same time, the Iowa General Assembly has provided a reasonable level of veterans’ benefits. Unfortunately, a breakdown occurs in the outreach to and the education of Iowa veterans as to the benefits they have earned and for which they are eligible.”

Culver criticized Branstad’s plan, saying the former governor opposes millions in I-JOBS spending that is going toward projects to support Iowa veterans.

The projects Culver said Branstad opposes include $22.9 million for renovations to the Iowa Veterans Home and $5 million for Linn County Veterans Affairs. Branstad and Republican lieutenant-governor nominee Kim Reynolds also oppose unemployment benefits for trailing military spouses, Culver said.

State Report Finds Medicaid Underfunded

The rapidly growing state-federal Medicaid health-care program for low-income Iowans is underfunded by $35 million this fiscal year in part because of the new state flood-recovery program created by the governor, according to a new report from the Legislative Services Agency (LSA).

A state forecasting group agreed that Medicaid will have a supplemental need of $20 million to $50 million, with a midpoint of a $35 million. The range includes a $15-million cash-flow transfer from the state’s cash reserves to Medicaid for the newly created Iowans Helping Iowans flood-relief program. It is assumed that legislative action will be required to restore the transferred funds.

The Department of Management has informed the LSA that it intends to transfer $15 million from the state’s cash reserves to replenish Medicaid, and $5 million from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund to replenish the Grow Iowa Values Fund. Money in the new flood-recovery program will be used for housing assistance, small-business assistance, and unmet needs.

Medicaid continues to see rapid enrollment growth.

In Fiscal Year 2009, the program added 31,794 individuals, including 25,935 children. In Fiscal Year 2010, the program added 27,164 individuals, including 19,286 children. In the first two months of Fiscal Year 2011, the program added 3,349 individuals, for a total program enrollment of 375,905.

This weekly summary comes from IowaPolitics.com, an online government and politics news service. Reporter Andrew Duffelmeyer and other correspondents contributed to this report.