Iowa foes of same-sex marriage seek to oust judges who legalized it

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Friday, August 27, 2010

DES MOINES - Politics is as much a mainstay of the Iowa State Fair as the deep-fried food and the cows sculpted out of butter. But the crowds searching for a remote corner under the grandstand this week were not headed for one of the presidential hopefuls who routinely drop by. They were interested in a normally low-key judicial election that has suddenly taken center stage in the national fight over same-sex marriage.

Conservative activists are trying to oust three judges on the state Supreme Court whose unanimous ruling last year legalized same-sex unions. Their decision stunned opponents nationwide and delighted advocates who were eager for a victory in the heartland.

Now, conservatives are staging an unusual campaign that aims to defeat the judges in November.

"We need to vote them off the bench to send a message across Iowa that we, the people, still have the power," said Bob Vander Plaats, a Republican politician who is spearheading the campaign. "Not only will it send a message here in Iowa, but it will send a message in California, in Arizona and across the country that the courts have really taken on too much power."

The Iowa campaign is a new front in the fight over same-sex marriage, a hot-button issue this year after a federal judge in California invalidated Proposition 8, that state's voter-approved ban on same-sex unions. This week, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman disclosed that he is gay and that he supports the federal court's action in California, a case that probably will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. His announcement further fueled the emotional debate over the topic, given his stature in the GOP and his earlier involvement in efforts to mobilize voters by exploiting opposition to same-sex marriage.

The effort in Iowa worries not only gay rights advocates but some legal experts who say it is wrong to punish judges for an unpopular decision. For critics of judicial elections, Iowa is offering a compelling example of the peril of subjecting judges to voters' whims.

Backers of the campaign say they are simply exercising their democratic right to rein in a judiciary that has overstepped its authority on same-sex marriage and other issues.

Vander Plaats, who lost in the June gubernatorial primary, announced this month the creation of Iowa for Freedom, which has rented office space and hired six full-time staff members. The group plans to act like any other political campaign, with mailers, phone calls and door-knocking, Vander Plaats said.

"We've got a campaign to get rid of these judges. What do you think of that?" he called out to a man in a gray trucker hat at the fair. The man jerked his thumb as if to say, "They're out of here."

For the judges, the question of how to respond is tricky. State law says they can campaign for retention, but how they go about it is extremely restricted by the judicial code of conduct. So far, none of the three judges has set up a campaign committee.

The movement supporting same-sex marriage has had its greatest success in the courtroom. Shortly before the ruling in California, a federal judge in Massachusetts invalidated the federal government's ban on recognizing same-sex unions.

Gay rights groups have been less successful in the voting booth; in every state where the issue has been put on the ballot, voters have agreed to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

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