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Vander Plaats Says Iowa Court System Must Change

URBANDALE, Iowa (AP) Gov. Terry Branstad's three latest appointments to the Iowa Supreme Court underscore the need for change in the way judges are picked in the state, conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats said.

Vander Plaats, who led the successful campaign last year in which voters ousted three judges who had supported a unanimous decision legalizing gay marriage, said the fact that Branstad could appoint replacements without legislative confirmation was a fatal flaw in the system.

"There needs to be a new way we appoint justices to the Supreme Court," Vander Plaats, who heads the conservative group The Family Leader, told activists.

Branstad named the three new justices to the state's highest court last month, replacing the three who were voted out in November.

Roughly 60 people applied and a Judicial Selection Commission narrowed that to a field of nine, three for each opening, and then Branstad announced the selections on the same day late last month. The new justices are Edward Mansfield, Bruce Zager and Thomas Waterman. Under the state's judicial nominating system that decision is final.

That shows more fundamental change is needed, Vander Plaats said.

"Within six hours, without even sleeping on it, we had three appointments," said Vander Plaats, arguing that it meant nearly half of the seven-member court was picked with almost no public debate.

The governor's spokesman, Tim Albrecht, rejected that argument.

"Branstad's goal was to choose Supreme Court justices, from the available slate of nine candidates, who are most likely to faithfully interpret the laws and constitution and respect the separation of powers," Albrecht said.

Under the state's current system, Supreme Court justices face a retention election at the end of their first year on the bench, and then face retention elections every eight years. Justice David Wiggins faces retention next year, and the remaining three justices face retention election in 2016.

Critics of Vander Plaats' campaign said he was seeking to politicize the state's court system.

"Many Iowans and I are troubled by his calls for the remaining justices to be removed and further inject politics into Iowa's courts," said former Republican Lt. Gov. Joy Corning. "Poll after poll has found that the majority of Iowans believe Mr. Vander Plaats and his agenda are out of touch with the real issues facing our state."

Voters amended the state's constitution 48 years ago to create the current judicial nominating system, and the decision by voters to oust the justices was the first time a high court justice has been removed during that stretch.

Chief Justice Mark Cady has conceded that the court was taken aback by the decision by voters, and vowed to heighten the court's public profile.

Vander Plaats, who has become one of the most prominent leaders of the social and religious conservative movement in the state, is in the midst of a tour through all of Iowa's 99 counties to raise even further the profile of that wing of the party.

"We need to be very clear that we need to be a voice in the public policy debate," Vander Plaats said. "We believe it's negligent for people of faith to walk away from government and politics."

Vander Plaats also said his group has set a new priority, and that's targeting Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, who has blocked efforts to move toward a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

"If Gronstal continues to behave like this, our top priority is going to be to get rid of Gronstal in 2012," Vander Plaats said.

Gronstal dismissed the challenge, saying legislative elections are local affairs and he traditionally runs strong grass-roots campaigns.

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