Vote on Iowa justice seen as test for gay marriage
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Supreme Court
Justice David Wiggins isn't well known outside the legal community of
his state, and even inside that group, isn't particularly popular.
But the question of whether
he should keep his job has become one of the most fiercely contested
judicial issues on the Nov. 6 ballot because of what he symbolizes in
the debate over gay marriage and the role of courts.
Three years ago, Wiggins
and his six colleagues ruled that the state's law banning gay marriage
was unconstitutional, which made Iowa the third state to recognize
same-sex unions and the first outside the coasts. The decision triggered
a furor among conservatives, who mounted an aggressive campaign a year
later to defeat three of the justices whose terms came up for ballot
Now, the future of Wiggins,
whose term comes up this year, is sparking an even bigger battle as
liberal groups and lawyers shocked by the outcome in 2010 fight back on
his behalf. The race is being watched not only as barometer of the
public's changing attitude toward gay marriage but as a message for
judges who might take up similar cases in the future.
"2010 was like a hand
grenade into the Supreme Court chambers and we don't want to have that
repeated," said Des Moines attorney Guy Cook, president-elect of the
Iowa State Bar Association, which is campaigning to support Wiggins.
The opposing sides have
launched "Vote Yes" and "No Wiggins" campaigns and are spending heavily
to get their messages out. The National Organization for Marriage
provided $100,000 for an anti-Wiggins television ad this week and
conservative stars Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal led a cross-state bus
tour denouncing Wiggins as a liberal judicial activist. At each stop,
they were trailed by a bus carrying members of the bar who defended
Wiggins against that accusation.
The passion around an
obscure state justice captures the heightened tension this year over gay
marriage, with questions on the ballot in four states and surveys
showing that public opinion is shifting on the subject.
Along with the ballot
issues in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland and Washington, the Iowa vote could
contribute to "a watershed moment" for gay rights, said longtime
activist Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, a gay rights
group supporting Wiggins.
"The reality is, if you're
living in Alabama or South Carolina, you don't look to California or New
York as your yardstick. But you do look to Iowa. If it can happen here,
it can happen in those other places. That's part of the importance,"
said Red Wing.
During the bus tour,
National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said that
defeating the justices shows that gay marriage isn't inevitable and
can't be imposed by the courts.
"Change the course of
history. Take a bold stand," he told supporters. "Do not allow activist
judges to rewrite your constitution. Hold them accountable and the world
will be watching."
More state court decisions
on gay marriage lawsuits are expected in coming years. Currently, six
states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage while more
than 30 prohibit it.
Iowans did not embrace the
Iowa court's ruling when it came down following a lawsuit brought by gay
couples who were denied marriage licenses. Justices up for retention in
2010 were easily defeated, receiving about 45 percent of the vote, the
first judicial ousters since the state adopted a merit-selection system
But views have changed as
more than 4,500 same-sex couples have married since 2009. A Des Moines
Register poll in February found that voters overwhelmingly opposed
amending the constitution to ban gay marriage. Those surveyed were split
on the 2009 ruling and one-third said they "don't care much" about the
Several other factors also
may help Wiggins, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in
2003, as he seeks a second eight-year term. His supporters are running a
stronger campaign than the ineffective pro-retention effort in 2010.
The presidential race also means the electorate will be larger and more
liberal than the one that turned out for the Republican-dominated
"It makes it more
difficult," concedes Bob Vander Plaats, whose group, the Family Leader,
leads the opposition. He said that "with limited resources," it would be
harder to get an anti-Wiggins message out as Iowa gets saturated with
ads for presidential and congressional races.
The bar's boost for Wiggins
comes even though its members like him less than many of his
colleagues. A survey conducted by the bar every two years on the
performance of judges up for retention found that 63 percent of lawyers
believed Wiggins should be retained, second lowest of 74 judges on the
ballot. Lawyers gave Wiggins only adequate marks for his temperament and
demeanor, and backers concede he can be brusque.
The process of replacing
his ousted colleagues also brought Wiggins criticism. He chaired the
committee that interviewed candidates and recommended nine finalists,
including one woman, to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. Branstad
appointed three white men, making the court one of the only ones in the
nation without a female member.
Wiggins is honoring the
tradition in which Iowa judges do not campaign. However, he wrote
recently in the Register, "I do not want Iowa to end up like states with
highly partisan courts. Iowa is better than that."
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