OUR OPINION: Infusion of politics hurts integrity of courts

2012-09-23T08:00:00Z 2012-09-23T09:18:51Z OUR OPINION: Infusion of politics hurts integrity of courtsJournal editorial board Sioux City Journal
September 23, 2012 8:00 am  • 

What we feared and warned about when Bob Vander Plaats and his supporters began their first crusade to remove Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 is on full display again this election year - to the continuing detriment of our state's judicial system.

Buoyed by a successful effort to defeat three justices (Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit) for retention two years ago, Vander Plaats and his followers are engaged in a new bid to defeat another justice (David Wiggins) involved in the Supreme Court's unanimous 2009 decision legalizing gay marriage in the state.

The result: A full-blown political battle, complete with attendant baggage. We have statements and speeches, polls, involvement of competing special interests (Family Leader, the Vander Plaats-led organization, and Justice Not Politics, led by former Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, to name just two), the introduction of outside money and influence (the National Organization for Marriage, for example), visiting politicians from other states (Quite frankly, we can't imagine Terry Branstad sticking his nose into a Louisiana state issue as Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to do here this week) and a "No Wiggins" bus tour.

And this, in the world of Vander Plaats, is good? Pardon us our trepidation as the political storm clouds continue to build over our state's courtrooms.

Regardless of their views about gay marriage, Iowans should understand: The independent foundation on which a strong court system is based is at risk of being weakened in our state. The kinds of organized campaigns we have witnessed in 2010 and again this year to drive out judges as political retaliation for a ruling establishes an unsettling precedent for a future in which the infusion of political ideology routinely will force Iowa judges to raise money and wage political campaigns to stay on the bench. These questions arise: Will judges begin to consider the political ramifications of rulings? Will judges become beholden to special interests and their cash?

Once you open the door to politics, it's hard to close it. Today, Vander Plaats is unhappy about an "activist" court decision; tomorrow, the leader of some left-leaning political organization may be upset about what he or she perceives as an "activist" ruling and seek payback - and the cycle will continue.

We subscribe to the narrow view of retention votes. Judges should be removed from the bench only for reasons of malfeasance or gross incompetence, not for political retribution. Removing Ternus, Baker and Streit didn't overturn the controversial 2009 court decision and removing Wiggins won't either. Defeating them is meant to punish them and warn others.

Those Iowans who wish to make gay marriage illegal would be better-advised to focus their energy on electing more state legislators who agree with them this fall in anticipation of pushing a constitutional amendment through the General Assembly. 

According to Vander Plaats, he's working to restore integrity to our court system. In our view, he's doing the opposite - sucking integrity out of it.

By voting to retain Wiggins, Iowans will reject this political power play and send a message of opposition to the short-sighted, misguided injection of politics into our state's judicial system. We are hopeful of just such an outcome.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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