Iowa judges don’t engage in political campaigning.
But recently retired Clinton County District Judge Charles Pelton said Tuesday he is no longer under such restrictions, and he wasn’t shy Tuesday about sharing his views about a campaign against the retention of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins.
Pelton said Bob Vander Plaats, whose Family Leader organization is leading the campaign against Wiggins, is damaging the state’s judicial system to push his own agenda.
“I’m here to warn the public that he’s selling snake oil, and it’s dangerous, and they shouldn’t buy it,” Pelton said.
Pelton was one of about 20 people who attended a rally at the Scott County Courthouse organized by the Iowa State Bar Association, which is campaigning throughout the state in support of Wiggins’ retention and in opposition to the Iowans for Freedom campaign that is seeking to remove Wiggins from office.
About the same number of people attended an Iowans for Freedom rally at Living Water Family Church in Davenport, where Vander Plaats questioned the bar association’s motives for supporting Wiggins’ retention.
“To them, this is about power,” Vander Plaats said. “This is about the court being in charge of your lives.”
In response to the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous 2009 decision in Varnum v. Brien, which legalized same-sex marriage in the state, Vander Plaats led a successful 2010 campaign against the retention of three of the court’s justices.
Wiggins is the fourth involved in the decision to stand for retention. Joshua Mercer, executive director of CatholicVote.org, said the right to vote on the retention of judges is the equivalent of a job performance review, and that the justices on the state’s highest court at the time of the Varnum decision had overstepped their bounds.
Mercer said Iowans need justices who will “just call the balls and strikes.”
“Judges should not be amending the constitution,” he said.
Dan Moore, past president of the state bar association, said during his group’s rally that the justices had not changed the law; they merely applied it.
“The truth of the matter is that (the court) applied the equal protection clause of the Constitution,” Moore said. “The truth of the matter is removing more justices will not change the law.”
Moore also said it would not be in the best interest of Iowans to politicize the judicial system, forcing judges to campaign for office and raise money for campaigns.
“Justice should not be for sale to the highest bidder,” he said.
Christine Branstad, a Des Moines lawyer and the niece of Gov. Terry Branstad, said the Vander Plaats campaign is financed not by Iowans, but by out-of-state interests pushing a political agenda. She said Vander Plaats has called the state bar association a “man-made” organization.
“His organization is money-made,” she said.
Pelton and former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Linda Neuman, who also served as a district judge in Iowa’s 7th Judicial District, also went to the Iowans for Freedom rally and stood nearby while Neuman held a paper fan shaped like the state of Iowa that read, “I’m a fan of Iowa’s fair and impartial courts.”
Kim Lehman, state director of Patriot Voices, an organization headed by former Pennsylvania senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, said Wiggins and the rest of the court violated Iowa’s Judicial Code of Conduct in the Varnum case.
The ruling in the case referenced evidence and research submitted by the plaintiff about the optimal environment for raising children, and reads that the research was “confirmed by our independent research...”
The Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct states that “a judge shall not investigate facts in a matter independently, and shall consider only the evidence presented and any facts that may properly be judicially noticed.”
“It is our responsibility as citizens to vote him out on that alone, because he broke the law,” Lehman said.
Jim and Becky Nitzschke of Bettendorf attended the Iowans for Freedom rally and said they had been involved in “Christian values” issues for several years.
Becky Nitzschke said she thought Wiggins should not be retained in part because his retention rating from members of the bar association was only 63 percent.
Jim Nitzshcke said he had concerns about “judicial activism.”
“I think the public needs to stand up and oppose judges that are overreaching,” he said.
The other three justices up for retention — Thomas Waterman of Pleasant Valley, Bruce Zager of Waterloo and Edward Mansfield of Des Moines — were appointed in 2011 after the three justices were ousted on retention votes. District court judges also are on the retention ballot.