One of the hard-fought election battles in Iowa this year is about three justices who serve on the Iowa Supreme Court.  The names of those three justices are on this fall’s ballot in a retention election.

A group called “Iowa for Freedom” was launched in early August to urge Iowans to vote no on the justices because of the court’s ruling which cleared the way for gay marriage in Iowa. 

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats,  the group’s spokesman, held a rally on the sidewalk outside the state Judicial Building on August 11. “Hold these judges accountable and vote all three off the Supreme Court island come November 2,” Vander Plaats said.  “…April 3, 2009, they clearly legislated from the bench by saying Iowa will be a same-sex marriage state. It is not their place to legislate from the bench. It is only the legislature’s place to make law, not the Supreme Court’s place to make law.” 

Chuck Laudner, a former aide to Republican Congressman Steve King and the former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, is managing the effort. “Two years ago you probably couldn’t have mounted a campaign to get people to vote no on three judges, but in this environment, it seems to be working,” Launder says. 

Adam Skaggs of New York University Law School has studied spending on judicial retention elections around the country. “Retention elections may be more expensive and more hotly contested this year than we have seen over the past ten years,” he says.

Two groups — the National Organization for Marriage which is based in Washington, D.C. and the American Family Association which is based in Misssissippi — are bankrolling expensive ad campaigns in Iowa that urge no votes on the justices.

“We’re not naive,” Justice David Baker said recently. “This did not sneak up on us.” 

But Baker and the other two justices are not mounting a campaign to urge Iowans to keep them on the court.   “We strongly believe that the people of Iowa do not want us to be in the position of raising money for a campaign,” Baker said during an interview with Iowa Public Radio. “We don’t believe that anyone appearing before a judge wants to be in the position of not having contributed to a judge when they know that their opponent has perhaps contributed thousands of dollars towards that judge’s campaign. We fully understand that this course of action may not be the smartest move politically.”

Former Republican Governor Robert Ray is heading up a group called “Fair Courts for US” which is urging Iowans to retain the justices. Ray says he remembers when judges in Iowa were elected. “I practiced law when it was the other way and I’ll tell you that wasn’t much fun,” Ray says. “…Lawyers wanted to go before the judges that they contributed to their campaign for, so this is a much, much better system.”

Ray has recorded an ad which urges Iowans not to “fire” the justices because of one ruling.

A Des Moines Register “Iowa Poll” conducted in mid-September suggested the likely voters surveyed were split pretty evenly on whether to retain the three justices.  Iowa’s current system for appointing judges dates back to 1962, and no Iowa Supreme Court justice has ever been voted off the court in that 48-year period.