Anti-Gay Group Targets Iowa Judges--With Out-of-State Money

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 14, 2010

A Mississippi-based group is financing efforts by anti-gay activists in Iowa to remove three justices belonging to Iowa's supreme court. In 2009 the state's highest court ruled unanimously that gay and lesbian Iowa families should have the right to marry under that state's constitution.

The American Family Association--an anti-gay group that says GLBTs are unfit for public office and also believes that Muslims should be barred from military service--has contributed $100,000 to the Iowa group, led by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, which is trying to defeat the three justices who are up for a retention vote this year. Local news station KCRG-TV reported on the out of state funding on Oct. 13.

Another out of state anti-gay group, the National Organization for Marriage, has also kicked in money--to the tune of $235,000, the article said.

Vander Plaats brushed aside concerns about the ethics of using such large sums of money from out of state, telling the media, "What we're doing is we're running an effective campaign according to the letter of the law." Vander Plaats added, "They can't defend what the justices are doing so they're attacking something else."

But the morality of the use of funds from out of state interests was questioned by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa's Connie Ryan Terrell. "It is gravely concerning to us that a hate-mongering group such as the AFA is the single funder of an effort to insert its narrow political agenda into Iowa with the sole purpose of disrupting our fair and impartial courts," Terrell said at a news conference.

"Iowa's judicial system is under assault," said another religious leader, minister Matt Mardis LeCroy. "Iowa for Freedom is not from Iowa and it is not for freedom."

Judges in Iowa are subject to retention votes every eight years. Normally, the votes fly well below the radar, but not this year: Chief Justice Marcia Ternus and two others, justices David Baker and Michael Streit, have been marked for removal by anti0gay activists for their interpretation of the state's constitutional protections, which resulted in the voiding of a law denying marriage to same-sex families.

Critics of state laws that force judges to face elections say that political pressure should be kept out of the justice system, lest judges feel compelled to allow popular sentiment rather than a strict adherence to the law to color their verdicts. "This is the first time that Iowa has had special interests and major campaign donations involved in a judicial retention election," said Norman Kaut of Iowans for Fair & Impartial Courts, reported blogger Shane Vander Hart at Caffeinated Thoughts on Oct. 5.

"This kind of campaign can push judges to consider the political implications of their rulings as opposed to limiting themselves to the application of the law to the facts of a case brought before them," added Kaut. "This, in turn, can subvert citizens' belief in whether judges can be fair and impartial."

The blog reported that polls show voters are almost evenly divided, with 44% saying they will retain the justices, 40% intending to vote to remove them, and 16% voting to remove one or two of the justices.

Former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor is an advocate for reform, and a supporter of the three embattled Iowa justices.

Locally, the justices also count heavy hitters among their supporters, reported the Associated Press on an Oct. 14 article. An organization called Fair Courts for US that counts former state Gov. Robert Ray and former Lt. Gov. Art Neu among its members is defending the justices.

The current governor of Iowa, Chet Culver, also attended an Oct. 9 event to benefit the Fairness Fund, a PAC supporting equality-minded political candidates, according to an Oct. 8 Radio Iowa story. Culver had opposed marriage equality before the court's decision, but now says that marriage equality in Iowa "has not had an effect on the state of Iowa, other than allowing people to make their own decisions." Culver made that statement during a debate with Republican challenger Terry Brandstad, who says that the rights of gay and lesbian families should be put to a popular vote.

Since the court's decision, the Democratically-led state legislature has refused to allow a Propostion-8 style anti-gay ballot initiative to go before the voters. But anti-gay groups, including the Iowa Catholic Conference, have been working to get a proposition on the ballot in hopes of taking marriage rights away from same-sex families.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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