DES MOINES — Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor today urged Iowans to preserve the system of merit-based selection of judges that protects a fair and impartial court system.

“The bottom line is Iowa has an excellent system in place for selecting judges,” O’Connor told a forum on judicial independence in Des Moines today.

O’Connor, who was the first woman to serve on America’s highest court, said Iowa is going through a stressful time with three top judges targeted for defeat in retention elections this November. She said courts remain “the one safe place” where citizens can get fair and impartial treatment and it is important that judges “be protected from retaliation for their judicial actions.”

The former U.S. Supreme Court justice said campaigns in nearly 20 states that directly elect judges are seeing contributions that range higher than contests for U.S. Senate seats. She said partisan election of judges has “eroded the faith of our citizens” and it is important for Iowa to maintain a system that insulated judges from political influences.

O’Connor said there is room for improvements in the current merit-based selection process that would include more openness in the workings of judicial nominating commissions, but she cautioned against abandoning the process Iowa has followed for nearly 50 years in favor of direct judicial elections.

This year, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker are up for retention votes on the Nov. 2 ballot. They are the targets for defeat of an organized effort by former GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaat’s newly formed Iowa For Freedom, a conservative grassroots group intent on sending a message that the courts are taking too much power and overstepping their role in the governmental balance.

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Ternus, Streit and Baker were part of a unanimous ruling in April 2009 that struck down a law designed to protect traditional one-man, one-woman marriage as contrary to constitutional equal-protection standards, paving the way for civil marriages between couples of the same gender to be legally conducted later that month. Since then, more than 2,500 same-sex marriages have taken place in Iowa.

Allan Vestal, dean and professor of the Drake University Law School, said judicial retention votes are not intended to be a referendum on an individual case and attempts to make them a voter proxy are improper.

Michael Petro, vice president and director of business and government policy and chief of staff for the Center for Economic Development in Washington, D.C., said court systems have a major effect on business decisions and transactions and businesses look to states that assure them a level playing field, stability and predictability. He said those elements are affected by “messy” processes where judges are seated after winning via hard-fought, highly financed election campaigns.