December 18, 2014

72 Iowa judges up for retention vote in 2014

Seventy district court judges and two judges on the Iowa Court of Appeals are up for a retention vote on this fall’s ballot.

The Iowa State Bar Association has released its survey of lawyers about each of the judges up for retention in 2014. Over 1100 attorneys from around the state evaluated the judges on what the Bar Association describes as “performance characteristics” and the Bar Association’s president says all the judges “received high ratings.” Find the evaluations for the 72 judges here.

In 1962, the so-called “merit” system was launched for choosing Iowa judges. A judicial nominating commission recommends three candidates for each opening and the governor appoints people to the bench, but those judges must periodically stand for a retention vote.

In 2010 Iowa voters tossed three Iowa Supreme Court justices — including the chief justice — off the bench after the court’s 2009 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. But in 2012 another justice who joined that unanimous ruling won his retention vote. There are no justices from the Supreme Court on this year’s ballot.

Hatch says Branstad will use ‘bully pulpit’ to push for same-sex marriage ban

Jack Hatch

Jack Hatch

Jack Hatch, the Democratic candidate for governor, says Iowans “should be very skeptical” of Republicans like Governor Terry Branstad who say making same-sex marriage illegal in Iowa isn’t a top priority.

“I think we have to realize that you get a Republican House and a Republican Senate and you have a Republican governor, then marriage equality is at risk,” Hatch says.

Branstad says governors have no “direct role” in setting up a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

“It is a legislative matter and I respect the fact that the legislators are the ones that are going to make a decision on this,” Branstad says.

Hatch, who supports same-sex marriage, says Branstad has made it “very clear” the only legitimate marriages should be between a man and a woman.

“It is their number one social agenda, without a doubt,” Hatch says. “…We should be very scared of the agenda of the Republican leadership.”

Terry Branstad

Terry Branstad

Branstad says he’s focused on education and economic development and this isn’t a priority issue for him, but Branstad says Iowa voters “should have the opportunity” to decide whether to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“It’s up to the people to decide who they want to send to the legislature, if they want people who are going to give the people of Iowa a chance to vote on this issue,” Branstad says.

Branstad says voters appreciate a governor who is “focused and doesn’t try to do everything.”

“I’m running for reelection as governor of Iowa and I’m focusing on things that are important to the people of Iowa and that the governor has a role in,” Branstad says. “I do respect the fact that there are people who have strong views on this issue and that is not my responsibility. It is a legislative matter.”

Hatch suggests Branstad has “enormous power” to speak out for the ban same-sex marriage.

“Don’t let him fool us that he doesn’t have this authority. He does. He has the authority of the bully pulpit,” Hatch says. “…I think he’ll use it and, unfortunately, I think he’ll use it in the wrong way.”

In 2009 the Iowa Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny a marriage license to same-sex couples. In 2010, during the last campaign, Branstad said the court had made the “wrong decision.”

Even if Republican legislators pass a resolution in 2015 calling for a statewide vote to ban same-sex marriage, the same resolution would have to pass again in 2017 — so the earliest the matter could be presented to voters would be in three years from now.

Congressional candidate David Young stressing economic rather than social issues

David Young, the newly-minted GOP nominee for congress in Iowa’s third district, says his Washington, D.C. experience as an aide to three different senators is a strength, not a weakness. Young’s Democratic opponent, Staci Appel, has already started attacking Young as a “D-C insider.”

“Knowing how to hit the ground running in Washington, D.C., is an asset and working for Senator Grassley under his mentorship and tutalage is not a bad thing…He taught me how to listen to people,” Young says. “Iowans are my boss, not anyone else, not party leadership and we see what happens with party leadership sometimes. Look what happened to Erin Cantor when you don’t remember who your boss is.”

Young worked for Republican senators from Kentucky and Colorado before serving seven years as Grassley’s chief of staff. Young finished fifth in the Republican primary in Iowa’s third congressional district on June 3rd, but he secured his spot on November’s ballot in last weekend’s third district nominating convention.

Young says while he joins his fellow Republicans in opposing same-sex marriage and abortion, those are not issues he will stress in this year’s campaign. because nothing can be accomplished with President Obama still in the White House two more years.

“What I’ve been pushing here in my campaign are not social issues, although they are important to me personally, but issues on debt, the economy, government accountability,” Young says.

Young made his comments this afternoon during taping of the “Iowa Press” program that airs tonight on Iowa Public Television.

Same-sex marriage in Iowa leads to legal battle in Nebraska

Two lesbians from Nebraska who were legally married in Iowa five years ago are now wanting a divorce, launching a legal battle now before the Nebraska Supreme Court. While same-sex marriages are legal under Iowa’s constitution, they’re not in Nebraska, which also doesn’t recognize unions from other states.

Attorney Megan Mikolajczyk argues Nebraska needs to recognize the legally binding contract from Iowa. Mikolajczyk says, “The appellant, a Nebraska resident, seeks the recognition of the United States Constitution which requires all states to recognize the valid acts, records and proceedings of our sibling states in the union.” She says the Nebraska Supreme Court should grant the divorce, even though Nebraska doesn’t acknowledge same-sex marriage.

Nebraska Assistant Attorney General James Smith argued against that, saying Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriages in 2000 and granting a divorce would go against voters’ wishes. Smith says, “Nebraska’s constitution defines and recognizes under our law what constitutes marriage.” Seventy-percent of Nebraska voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. The attorney general’s office argues it doesn’t make sense for Nebraska to grant a divorce when the same-sex marriage isn’t legal here.

Mikolajczyk argued the state of Nebraska should be obligated to recognize the couple’s marriage. “The state of Iowa issued the appellant a valid marriage license,” she says. “This is a state act. A marriage ceremony was performed in Iowa with the proper officiant which is a state proceeding.”

Smith argued that Nebraska’s voters have made their minds clear on the subject of same-sex marriage, based on the vote in 2000. Smith says, “The appellant requests this court to, in effect, disenfranchise 70% of Nebraska’s voters by having this court adopt a construction of the United States Constitution which has not been recognized by the United States Supreme Court itself.”

The case involves Bonnie Nichols of Raymond, Nebraska, who married her long-time partner Margie in 2009, the year same-sex marriages started in Iowa following an Iowa Supreme Court case that struck down a law which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Bonnie Nichols filed for divorce last year, but a Lancaster County, Nebraska, judge ruled a divorce couldn’t be given if the marriage couldn’t be recognized in the first place.

The Nebraska Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Wednesday. A ruling is expected at a later date.

Thanks to Chris Whitney, KLIN, Lincoln


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.”