The Iowa State Bar Association has released the results of a survey of lawyers who evaluated the performance of Iowa judges, including the three Iowa Supreme Court justices who face an organized campaign to vote them off the court because of the court’s gay marriage ruling.
Before each so-called “retention” election, the Bar Association surveys its members to evaluate the judges who are on the ballot that year for voters to decide whether the judges should stay on the bench. Lawyers returning this year’s survey recommended retention of the three Iowa Supreme Court justices, by wide margins. Becky Knutson, a member of the Bar Association committee which managed the survey, says more lawyers turned in their evaluations this year than usual.
“This year I believe we had 3,429 responses to at least portions of the different questionnaires,” she says. “That’s almost twice as many as we had in 2008.”
The attorneys rate the justices on their knowledge and application of the law, the clarity of their written opinions, and their demeanor in the courtroom. Seventy-two percent of the lawyers who answered the survey indicated they’d vote to retain Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, while the other two justices who are up for retention got higher ratings, of around 83 percent. Knutson says she can’t “speculate” about why Ternus got a lower rating than the other two justices.
“But the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court has a little bit different job than some of the other justices,” she says. “The chief justice will be the person who will address issues such as dealing with teh court’s budget, or the administrative issues in the court, so the chief justice is the person that we see, or the public may see, dealing with those administrative issues for the court, so in that regard the job’s a little bit different and a little bit more public.”
Ternus, as the chief administrator of Iowa’s court system, ordered a series of furlough days in which court offices around the state were closed for business and she laid off workers to deal with budget cuts. “I don’t know if that affected the way lawyers voted on Justice Ternus,” Knutson says. “But certainly she had to be the public face of making some of those hard, hard decisions.”
The Iowa attorneys gave all three Iowa Supreme Court justices a score of around four on a scale of one to five, indicating their performance is good or above average. Groups angered by the court’s gay marriage ruling are running a quarter-of-a-million dollars worth of ads statewide, urging Iowans to vote no on the justices. Knutson says what lawyers look at is whether the court properly interpreted the facts and the law.
“What we hope is that…the public will realize that judges are sometimes called upon to make very difficult and sometimes very unpopular decisions, but they are obligated to do it fairly, impartially and based on the law as they find it to the best of their ability,” Knutson says. “And we hope people realize that even though decisions may be unpopular, sometimes unpopular decisions are correct under the law.”
The lawyers also rated the other 71 judges at the lower court level who are on the November ballot and concluded all are “well-qualified” to remain on the bench. That includes the district court judge who first ruled on the gay marriage case that ultimately was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court.
A spokesman for Iowa for Freedom — a group recommending the ouster of the justices who signed onto the gay marriage ruling — is dismissing the Bar Association’s survey, saying the majority of Iowans could “care less” about how the lawyers rate the judges.