This Time the Wheels Came Off the Antigay Bus: A Victory for Equality and Justice in Iowa!

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November 13, 2012

On Election Day in Iowa, equality advanced and justice was protected, as voters shielded their Supreme Court from attacks by antigay groups looking to punish justices for ruling against their extreme ideological agenda.

This attack on our courts stemmed from a unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court in Lambda Legal’s case, Varnum v. Brien, which struck down Iowa’s marriage ban and ordered the state to issue marriages licenses to same-sex couples.

But the road to equality and justice hit a speed bump in 2010, when antigay groups, who were frustrated with their inability to change the law, took their anger out on the courts. Their attack on judicial independence resulted in the ousting of three well-respected Iowa Supreme Court justices during a routine retention election.

These antigay groups, including the National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Association, poured nearly $1 million dollars into the 2010 campaign to oust the justices for participating in the Court’s unanimous decision.  The groups intended to send a clear message that the blatant use of intimidation is an effective means to control the bench, and that these groups would punish other judges who rule against their antigay social agenda.

This year, buoyed by the outcome in the previous election, opponents of the freedom to marry, now joined by the Republican Party of Iowa, came together again to unseat the fourth justice from the Varnum decision, David Wiggins, who was the only justice who had participated in that case who was up for retention. The campaign, spearheaded by failed gubernatorial candidate and leader of the Iowans For Freedom committee, Bob Vander Plaats, rode around the state on a “No Wiggins” bus tour, with guest appearances from the likes of Rick Santorum and the Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal.

But this time the wheels came off their antigay bus!

On Election Day, voters rejected this campaign of division, the politicization of their courts, and the cries of judicial activism. As it turns out, the people of Iowa value judicial fairness and equal access to justice.

The Iowa Supreme Court is considered one of the fairest and most impartial in the country. In 1962, Iowans amended their Constitution to adopt a model of judicial selection based on the famed Missouri Plan, whereby judges are selected through a nonpartisan merit process and later stand before voters for retention every six years. The retention mechanism was designed to allow voters to get rid of judges for unethical behavior, corruption or incompetence- not to be used as a referendum on a single decision.

The fierce judicial independence demonstrated by the justices on the Iowa Supreme Court in the unanimous Varnum decision exemplified judicial integrity—a commitment to the rule of law that holds firm in the face of shifting political winds and the tide of public opinion. The brave justices, who were appointees of both Republican and Democratic governors, looked at the law and the facts presented and ruled that Iowa’s marriage ban was at odds with the guarantee of Equal Protection in Iowa’s Constitution. Their decision required by the Constitution, the ruling was based on legal precedent, and the analysis was grounded in the state’s long-established Equal Protection jurisprudence.

The outcome in Iowa along with the victories in Washington, Maryland, Maine and Minnesota, show that the lesbian and gay community has turned a corner toward equality in this country, and there is no turning back.

But the result in Iowa was also a victory for our system of justice. The campaign waged by these antigay groups urged voters to throw out “activist judges” for doing the very thing that judges are supposed to do, namely decide tough cases and uphold constitutional rights even if those decisions may not be politically popular. And these antigay groups did so under the guise of being “pro-democracy.”

By rejecting this assault on justice and attempt to intimidate judges, the people of Iowa demonstrated to the nation that we will stand up and protect the system of justice that is designed to preserve our cherished rights and liberties.