Dankbar: Campaign to oust judges based on one decision is embarrassing, ignorant


Justice David Wiggins, who was involved in the controversial Varnum v. Brien ruling that made gay marriage legal in Iowa, is up for retention in this election.  While justices can be voted out of office — and should be if they are not citing the Constitution — they should not be subject to popular vote.

Hannah Dankbar

Two years ago Iowans voted out three Supreme Court Justices for the first time since this type of election system was put in place in 1962. This was a result of the controversial Varnum ruling that made gay marriage legal in Iowa. Conservative politicians from all over the country pumped about $1 million into a campaign that encouraged Iowans to vote those justices out of office.

Justice David Wiggins is up for his retention election this year. There is another campaign taking place to vote him out.

Bob Vander Plaats led this campaign after losing the Republican nomination for governor. He believes that the justices over stepped their bounds and that the court did not listen to the people, so the people should vote them out. His slogan was, “It’s we the people, not we the courts.”

These campaigns are embarrassing for Iowa and represent a huge lack of knowledge of how our government is set up.

Here’s a quick lesson in American government. We have three branches: the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch enforces the laws and the judicial branch interprets the laws. Each branch has a separate duty and they rely on each other to do their jobs.

Justices (judges) are appointed to their positions because they are responsible to the Constitution, not the people. The members of the legislative branch (Congress) are responsible to the people, which is why they are elected. If you are unhappy with a decision made by Congress, vote out your representative. If you are unhappy with a decision made by the court, propose a Constitutional amendment.

In Iowa we have a merit-selection process to appoint our justices. This was adopted in 1962. Potential justices are nominated by a nonpartisan committee that makes recommendations to the governor of who should be appointed to the bench. After this, justices are up for a retention election every eight years.

This means it is OK to vote out a justice — if you have the right reasons. Justices should not be voted out for ruling against popular opinion in one case. If you find that a justice is legislating from the bench without textual support from the Constitution in various rulings or that they appear not to be knowledgeable in matters of Constitutional law, then by all means vote no.

Another key point to think about when making a decision of whether or not to vote to retain a Justice is that not many court cases receive media attention. Only highly controversial cases receive media attention, and your decision should not be based off of the potentially biased media coverage of one case.

An independent judiciary is a necessity to our government. The court serves as check on the legislative and executive branches to make sure that they do not overstep their bounds. The legislative branch can create any rule as long as it falls under their powers given by the Constitution. The court cannot create any rule unless it is presented with a case. The court has to make their rule based on the Constitution, not public opinion. This is very important, otherwise the Constitution will lose validity. This is why political matters do not belong in our courts.

The justices in 2010 chose not to campaign and Wiggins, a justice who is up for retention this year who participated in the 2009 Varnum decision, is choosing to follow in their footsteps. He believes that campaigns are political in nature and political activity does not belong in the courts.

Justices are allowed to campaign when they are up for retention. These four justices have chosen not to in order to keep political influence out of the court. Considering all of the criticism they have received, this is an honorable and courageous act.

With the election fast approaching take the time to be an informed voter. Voting is a right, and it is something that should be taken seriously. If you want to voice your opinion about politics, make sure you know what you are talking about made good voting decisions. If you have any doubts or questions, take the time to do some quality research. There are plenty of people around campus who are capable of answering any questions you may have.