Full Court Press

DAVENPORT, IOWA—Newt Gingrich's preposterous claim that, as president, he would ignore court decisions he didn’t like and subject the judiciary to congressional and presidential review has received the proper amount of ridicule from the press today. Scott Lemieux and Paul Waldman have already delved into the topic here at the Prospect, but these attacks aren’t solely coming from the left. This morning the Wall Street Journal ran the headline "Gingrich vs. Courts Echoes South's Criticism of 1950s Segregation Decisions," which even among the most conservative crowds won't be a favorable comparison.

It's a proposal so unhinged that it might be the final straw that forces establishment Republicans to distance themselves from Gingrich. But it's a popular sentiment on the judiciary among the caucus voters Newt needs to win Iowa. Judicial politics have become the cause célèbre among the state's social conservative grassroots ever since Varnum v. Brien, the landmark 2009 decision in which the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled a ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

It is a long and difficult process to add an amendment to Iowa's constitution overturning the courts, so conservatives have been forced to come up with some bizarre solutions. When Bob Vander Plaats—one of the state's most prominent social conservatives—ran in the Republican gubernatorial primary last spring, he promised to issue an executive order stopping clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses until a popular vote on a constitutional amendment could be held. Legal scholars—and Vander Plaats' opponent, now-governor Terry Branstad—said that the executive order would be well outside the accepted bounds of gubernatorial powers. This, of course, did not stop Vander Plaats from continuing to trumpet the idea throughout his campaign.

Once Vander Plaats was out of the governor's race, he launched a first-of-its-kind campaign against three of the nine Supreme Court justices who ruled on Varnum, an election I detailed for the Prospect this summer. Iowa judges are chosen under a “merit selection system” and must then pass an up-or-down retention vote every eight years. No Supreme Court justice had ever lost a retention vote, nor had there ever been a campaign waged against a justice. But Vander Plaats and his allies motivated social conservatives and successfully dislodged all three judges on the ballot. National groups such as the American Family Association and the National Organization for Marriage poured around $1 million against the justices.

Since that retention vote, the presidential candidates have clamored to appeal to Iowa's religious right by trumpeting those results. "I actually campaigned in Iowa against those justices," Rick Santorum said at the debate last week, "and I was the only one on this panel that did it." Santorum might have been the only one to campaign in front of crowds, but Gingrich was a key ally, funneling almost $200,000 to Vander Plaats' campaign.

When Newt speaks of the need for a strong executive branch to overrule the courts and reign in the judiciary, it conjures up images of national guardsmen blocking African-Americans from attending school. But Iowa's social conservatives likely envision their dream of putting gay couples back in the closet.

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