Three Iowa Supreme Court justices lost their seats Tuesday in a historic upset fueled by their 2009 decision that allowed same-sex couples to marry.
Vote totals from 96 percent of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts showed Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit with less than the simple majority needed to stay on the bench.
Their removal marked the first time an Iowa Supreme Court justice has not been retained since 1962, when the merit selection and retention system for judges was adopted.
The decision is expected to echo to courts throughout the country, as conservative activists had hoped.
“It appears we’re headed for a resounding victory tonight and a historic moment in the state of Iowa,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the Sioux City businessman who led a campaign to remove the justices because of the 2009 gay marriage ruling. “The people of Iowa stood up in record numbers and sent a message … that it is ‘We the people,’ not ‘We the courts.’ ”
In a statement issued early today, the three justices said: “We hope Iowans will continue to support Iowa’s merit selection system for appointing judges. This system helps ensure that judges base their decisions on the law and the Constitution and nothing else. Ultimately, however, the preservation of our state’s fair and impartial courts will require more than the integrity and fortitude of individual judges, it will require the steadfast support of the people.”
Not everyone agreed with Vander Plaats or the majority of voters.
“In the end, the aggressive campaign to misuse the judicial retention vote, funded by out-of-state special interests, has succeeded,” Drake University Law School Dean Allan Vestal said. “The loss of these three justices is most unfortunate, and the damage to our judicial system and the merit selection of judges will take much to repair.”
Ternus, Streit and Baker will remain on the bench until Dec. 31.
Justices serve staggered, eight-year terms. David Wiggins is up for retention in 2012; Mark Cady, Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel face voters in 2016.
The ouster effort grew out of the April 2009 gay marriage ruling that stunned the nation, outraged social conservatives and turned Iowa into the first Midwestern state to sanction same-sex marriage.
Iowa’s seven justices declared that a law barring same-sex marriage violated the constitution’s equal-protection rights of gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry.
Groups that wanted the justices ousted poured more than $650,000 into their effort, with heavy support from out-of-state conservative and religious groups. Campaigns that supported the justices and the current state court system spent more than $200,000.
Two Polk County judges who faced retention challenges survived with more than 60 percent of the vote, as did all of their colleagues at Iowa’s largest courthouse.
Judge Robert Hanson, who sided with six same-sex couples in the Polk County District Court ruling, was retained with 66 percent support once all precincts were counted. Polk County District Judge Scott Rosenberg, targeted in a last-minute automated phone campaign for signing one gay couple’s marriage waiver, kept his seat on the bench with 69 percent.
Hanson said he was elated and grateful for the support of Polk County voters but was disturbed by the loss of the three justices.
“I’m very, very thankful for the support, and for (voters’) apparent appreciation of the proper functions of the judiciary,” Hanson said.
Ternus, 59, the most senior justice on the seven-member court, was appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Terry Branstad in 1993. She became Iowa’s first female justice in 2006.
Baker, 57, the newest justice, was appointed by Gov. Chet Culver in 2008.
Streit, 60, joined the court in 2001. He was appointed to the district court bench by Branstad in 1983.
Iowans interviewed at polling stations based their votes heavily on the gay marriage ruling.
Chris Keller, 31, of Waukee voted “yes” to retain the three justices because he disagreed with political attacks based solely on the gay marriage opinion.
“It’s not the justices’ responsibility to let the people vote,” Keller said. “It’s the lawmakers’ responsibility, and they chose not to do that. Legally, the court’s ruling was the right decision.”
Bernie Noel of Bloomfield said he had never voted “no” on a justice until Tuesday. The 43-year-old said he opted to retain his local district court judges, who “do a great job, and are good people.” But the gay marriage ruling swayed him against the justices.
“I don’t think they should have the power to change the constitution and take things into their own hands,” Noel said. “It’s a hard job to do, but here, in this case, I just really think they overstepped their bounds.”
The retention challenge triggered a battle never seen in Iowa’s judicial history. Television, radio and Internet ads portrayed the justices as both activists and referees. Robo-calls urged a “no” vote. U.S. Rep. Steve King embarked on a statewide bus tour to rally “no” voters.
Supporters of the justices included former governors Robert Ray, a Republican, and Democrat Tom Vilsack, and other prominent figures in government.
Supporters of the justices considered the attacks an affront to the integrity of Iowa’s courts and how justices are selected.