April 17, 2014

Iowa Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage marks 5th anniversary

Rob Gilmer and  Rene Orduna.

Rob Gilmer and Rene Orduna.

Five years ago today the Iowa Supreme Court issued a ruling that paved the way for same sex marriage in the state. Since the historic Varnum vs. Brien decision, public opinion on the issue in Iowa has changed.

J. Ann Selzer is president of Selzer and Company, which recently conducted an Iowa Poll on gay marriage. “We found the plurality of Iowans say ‘it doesn’t really matter to me, it’s not my issue.’ And more say they’re proud than say they’re disappointed,” Selzer said.

Back in 2008, more than half of the respondents to the same poll said marriage should be between one man and one woman. Rob Gilmer and his husband Rene Orduna live in Council Bluffs, where they operate the restaurant Dixie Quicks. Rob says they moved to Iowa, from Omaha, shortly after the Iowa Supreme Court decision. “Just the fact that it happened in some scattered states, then in the Midwest, in Iowa…Iowa was the leading edge, it was amazing and something I never thought would happen in my lifetime,” Gilmer said.

The couple opened Dixie Quicks in Omaha in 1996, but with the move to Council Bluffs, they expanded their restaurant to include an art gallery where they got married.

Kate and Trish Varnum

Kate and Trish Varnum

The lead plaintiff in the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court case, Kate Varnum, believes public opinion still needs education even though it’s been five years. “We have a lot of work to do and we’re still working on changing the hearts and minds of people that we know and of Iowa in general,” Varnum said.

Soon after the decision, Varnum married her girlfriend and they adopted a son. “When we were first dating, we would introduce each other as our roommates or as our friends. Now we have no qualms about introducing each other as, ‘this is my wife,’” Varnum said. “Our son is two-and-a-half and he introduces us as ‘mama’ and ‘mommy’ and he will point out to others who we are in his life. I think that’s probably the biggest thing for us.”

Varnum said she and her wife Trish lead “a boring life” in Cedar Rapids, “just like any straight couple.”

(Reporting and photos courtesy of Clay Masters, Iowa Public Radio; editing by Radio Iowa’s Pat Curtis)

National report tracks spending in Iowa’s 2012 judicial retention election

A new national report finds more than $833,000 was spent on Iowa’s “politically charged” 2012 judicial retention election.

In 2010 three justices were voted off the Iowa Supreme Court, a backlash over the court’s 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Justice David Wiggins — another justice who joined that unanimous 2009 ruling — was on the 2012 General Election ballot in a retention election and he survived. The report from The National Institute on Money in State Politics, The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and a group called Justice at Stake tracked spending on the race. They found opponents of Wiggins spent $466,000 arguing for his defeat. Wiggins supporters spent about $100,000 less than that.

Iowans for Freedom — headed by well-known Iowa conservative Bob Vander Plaats — spent $318,000 trying to defeat Wiggins according to the report. The National Organization for Marriage spent more than $130,000 on TV ads against Wiggins. The “Justice Not Politics” organization that supported Wiggins spent $322,000. More than a third of that money came from The Human Rights Campaign, an organization that supports gay rights.

Wiggins won retention with 54.5 percent of the vote. The three other justices who joined the court’s same-sex marriage ruling are up for a retention vote in 2016. That includes Justice Mark Cady, the author of the 2009 same-sex marriage ruling. He became the court’s chief justice in 2011 after voters tossed former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus off the court.

Candidate for Iowa Court of Appeals asked about her marriage to ex-state auditor (AUDIO)

One of the nominees for an opening on the Iowa Court of Appeals was asked during a public interview with the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission if she was upholding the religious vows of her marriage after she raised the issue of her husband’s out-of-state job.

Jeanie Kunkle Vaudt is the wife of David Vaudt, the Republican who served a decade as state auditor before resigning this past May to lead a national accounting board. Scott Bailey, vice president of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, is a member of the commission that interviewed Jeanie Vaudt.

“I wasn’t aware of the situation…but it does raise a question for me now that you mention that. Did you make covenant vows with your husband?” Bailey asked. Bailey then asked if seeking a job on the Iowa Court of Appeals while her husband worked out of state would “break” those vows.

Vaudt gave this reply: “My husband and I have always been very supportive of each other and he is 100 percent behind me in this endeavor and I have always been 100 percent behind him.”

Vaudt had raised the issue of her marriage during her opening statement to the commission.

“I don’t want anyone making any decisions about me based upon assumptions or presumptions that might be inaccurate,” she said. “You might have heard my spouse is now employed 1600 miles east of here in Norwalk, Connecticut and when you heard that, you also may have heard that I am staying here and you may have wondered to yourself during this process: ‘Why didn’t she go with him?’”

Vaudt — who described herself as a “devoted spouse” — told the commission: “I have what it takes to be a great judge…One of the primary reasons I am staying here is because my judicial aspirations are here…I am happy to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure that I perform my duties in an exceptional manner.”

AUDIO of Vaudt’s opening statement and Bailey’s question, 7:45

Bailey told Radio Iowa late this afternoon he hadn’t planned to ask about Vaudt’s marriage until she brought it up.

“I was happy that she and her husband were unified on this and it wasn’t causing a disturbance to their marriage,” Bailey said. “…Jeanie is an excellent candidate that I am totally supportive of and her answer completely satisfied me. This had nothing to do with me asking an inappropriate question. It was a clarifying question.”

Bailey is one of seven Republicans Governor Branstad appointed to the commission after Christian conservatives led a 2010 campaign to oust three members of the Iowa Supreme Court. Bailey recently served on a jury and Bailey told Radio he’s disappointed with the “negative public perception” of the courts.

“The fact is we have the world’s best judiciary system and I’m very proud of it here in Iowa and I’m extremely proud of the candidates that we put forward, including Jeanie Vaudt, to the governor,” Bailey said. “He’s going to have a really hard time selecting among the top-notch candidates we put forward to him.”

Vaudt, who is 59 years old, is one of three nominees for an opening on the Iowa Court of Appeals. Sharon Greer, a 57-year-old attorney from Marshalltown and 38-year-old Christopher Lee McDonald of Des Moines, a district court judge, are the other two nominees.

Vaudt has been an assistant state attorney general since 1998. She worked at a Des Moines law firm a few years before that. After graduating from law school Vaudt worked as an assistant for an Iowa Supreme Court justice who later became chief justice. During her interview with the Judicial Nominating Commission, Vaudt described herself as an “Iowa farm girl who grew up, got married, moved to the big city, dreamed big dreams and who has made most of those dreams come true.”

Ethics Board dismisses call to remove executive director from NOM investigation (AUDIO)

The Iowa Ethics Board has unanimously rejected the idea of taking its executive director off the investigation of whether a national group that opposes same-sex marriage has violated Iowa campaign laws.

Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer for the National Organization for Marriage, this afternoon argued Iowa Ethics Board executive director Megan Tooker can’t be impartial because she was a law clerk for one of the Iowa Supreme Court justices the group helped vote off the bench in 2010.

“Your legal counsel…to whom we have to submit things, and then that’s interpreted to your board — it’s like submitting it to someone who has already decided that we’re guilty,” Mitchell said.

The National Organization for Marriage points to statements Tooker made when the board met earlier this month and decided to launch an investigation, when Tooker said a memo from one of the group’s lawyers had “absolutely” misinterpreted Iowa law.

“I’m not sure at this point…what an investigation is even supposed to do since, apparently, this is sort of like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ — verdict first, trial later,” Mitchell said.

The board held a meeting by telephone late this afternoon and voted unanimously to dismiss the group’s demand that Tooker be taken off the case. 

“I did not hear our counsel say anything that I thought was out of line,” said John Walsh of Dubuque, vice chair of the Iowa Ethics Board.

James Albert, a Drake University law professor who is chairman of the Ethics Board, said it will be the six-member board — not Tooker — who will direct and supervise the investigation and determine whether state laws have been violated.

“Our investigation will be thorough and fearless and we won’t be influenced by anything other than the facts and the law,” Albert said.

The lawyer for the National Organization for Marriage asked the board to submit, in writing, its request for the group’s fundraising calls and letters and hinted the group may resist, arguing the board is “treading on First Amendment rights” of free speech.

AUDIO of board meeting, 51:00

Donald Trump decries “lack of intelligence” among US politicians (AUDIO)

Real estate tycoon and television personality Donald Trump warns Republicans will lose the presidency again in 2016 unless the GOP chooses the “perfect” candidate. Trump was the closing speaker at the day-long Family Leadership Summit in Ames organized by The Family Leader, a Christian conservative organization.

“When I was looking to run last time and I was only thinking about it really once, but I was looking at it very seriously and I was getting these great poll numbers and people, I don’t know if they liked me or not, but they did like what I said,” Trump said. “What I said is what I’m saying now. Nothing changes.”

Trump told the crowd it’s hard for him to run for president because he’s doing “so many things.” Trump declared himself a “conservative Republican” and ticked off a litany of issues important to grassroots activists, including his opposition to same-sex marriage. Trump began by showing the crowd a childhood photo of his confirmation class at a Presbyterian Church in Queens, New York.

“Isn’t he cute? Not really,” Trump said, getting laughter from the crowd. Trump gestured to the photo, saying: “That’s my real hair,” before pointing to his own head, “and that’s my real hair, by the way,” earning even more laughter with his self-deprecating humor.

Trump closed by saying he has “many friends in Iowa.”

“I loved flying in. I loved looking all of the activity under that airplane. I see people just going to town and the beautiful farms and the beautiful acreages. It’s just beautiful to see,” Trump said. “I don’t see that so much in New York. New York is a little different view.”

AUDIO of Trump’s speech, 30:00

Trump shared his views on a wide-range of topics during his half-hour-long speech. He offered his indictment of U.S. defense spending without compensation in places like South Korea. Trump also critiqued the Romney campaign and assailed what he repeatedly called a “lack of intelligence” among the nation’s politicians.

Iowa Ethics Board votes to investigate National Organization for Marriage (AUDIO)

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board has voted to investigate whether a national group that opposes same-sex marriage violated state law during the 2012 campaign to unseat an Iowa Supreme Court justice.

Fred Karger, a California Republican who is a gay rights activist, filed a complaint about the National Organization for Marriage.

“They’re very duplicitous. They’re bullies,” Karger told reporters. “They’ll say and do anything to raise money.”

Karger found a fundraising letter in which the National Organization of Marriage asked for donations for its “No Wiggins” campaign to unseat Justice David Wiggins. State law requires the names of donors to be disclosed if they’re giving money for the purpose of defeating the justice, something the National organization for Marriage did not do in this case.

“We caught them and I’m so grateful for the (Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board) for moving forward on this investigation because we’ll find out where this money’s coming from,” Karger said after the board’s decision.

A letter from an attorney representing the National Organization for Marriage dismissed Karger’s complaint as “baseless” and “erroneous.” Iowa Ethics Board chairman James Albert discussed the attorney’s assertion that it’s donors can be kept secret during today’s meeting.

“Is that a correct representation of the law?” Albert asked.

Megan Tooker, an attorney who is the executive director of the Iowa Ethics Board, replied: “No, that’s absolutely false.”

The board voted unanimously to investigate the National Organization for Marriage. Karger — the man who filed the complaint — said the group spent over $700,000 in 2010 and 2012 to oust four state supreme court justices who joined the court’s 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Three justices were voted out in 2010, but Justice Wiggins won his retention vote in 2012.

AUDIO of board meeting, runs 19:06

AUDIO of Karger’s testimony before board, runs 11:26

Poll shows President Obama’s approval below 50% in Iowa

A poll released today shows Iowa voters remain narrowly divided over the 2009 State Supreme Court decision which allowed same-sex couples to marry. The Quinnipiac University poll shows 47-percent support the decision, with 44-percent in opposition.

Peter Brown is the assistant director of the university’s Polling Institute. “They also were asked if they opposed or supported amending the Iowa Constitution to ban same-sex marriage and a healthy majority, 55-percent, are against amending the constitution that way,” Brown says.

A majority of Iowans (57%) who participated in the poll also believe such a ban would be struck down by the courts. Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,256 registered voters in Iowa between July 15-17. The poll also found President Obama’s approval rating in Iowa is among the lowest scores ever posted in the nine states surveyed by Quinnipiac.

Brown says 55-percent of Iowa voters disapprove of the president’s job performance, compared to 41-percent who approve of it. “That’s down from May…when 50-percent of Iowa voters gave the president disapproval and 45-percent approved,” Brown says.

The new poll also takes an early look at the 2016 presidential campaign. “Quinnipiac found that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie would run in a dead heat in Iowa, if the presidential election were held today, at 41-percent each,” Brown says.

In other potential contests, Clinton tops Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by 46-to-39 percent, while Vice-President Joe Biden trails Christie 49-to-32 percent and gets just 39-percent to Walker’s 42-percent.