Celebrating the Defeated

Three former Iowa Supreme Court justices might not have received much love from their constituents, but they're about to be granted a national accolade. Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Associate Justices David Baker and Michael Streit were voted off the bench in 2010 after conservative activists organized against their retention election, a typically routine procedure that became political overnight. Conservatives—led by failed gubernatorial candidate and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats—were outraged when the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. The state's constitution is difficult to amend, so they decide to voice their displeasure by removing those three justices with funds provided by major social conservative organizations such as the American Family Association and the National Organization For Marriage. Liberals were caught off guard—unprepared to run a defensive campaign—and the three justices chose to sit out the election under the belief that it would be better to lose their jobs rather than bring politics and fundraising onto the bench.

The JFK Library announced last week that those three justices had won the 2012 Profile in Courage Award. The prize, named after the Pulitzer winning book under then-Senator John F. Kennedy's name (but largely written by his aide), is given to "public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences."

I profiled that campaign against the judges for the magazine last summer, detailing both the ideas underpinning the conservative opposition as well as the justices' decision to remain above the fray. What I found was a mixture of respect for the judges' decision paired with a resigned realization that the next judge up for retention likely wouldn't be able to sit back and take it without a fight.

"I think he is going to have to run some commercials and explain to people, 'Here is who I am, and here's what I stand for," Streit told me about Justice David Wiggins, one of the four remaining judges who voted for marriage equality and who is next up for retention this November.

A campaign directly targeting Wiggins hasn't popped up yet, but the general consensus among Iowa politicos is that one will likely develop later this year. Iowa Republicans noticed that running an outside campaign against activist judges was a powerful way to incite the conservative base that might be left uninspired by the moderate Republicans at the top of the ticket. A member of the state House reintroduced a measure last week to impeach those last four justices. And Bob Vander Plaats will be desperate for anything to keep his name in the headlines after he bobbled his endorsement during the Iowa caucuses.

Even the liberals lauding the honor of the three defeated judges told me that Wiggins would probably need to run a campaign, and his temperament seems disinclined to sit back and be criticized in public without any kind of response. But the more praise is heaped on the noble honor of the three former justices, the harder it will become for Wiggins to break from their precedent. "They took the position that judges should not get involved in politics. They maintained their integrity," Wiggins told me last summer. "And sometimes you lose your job by doing the right thing."

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