What Turned Wiggins Retention Election Into Narrow Victory

By Trish Mehaffey, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins will remain on the bench after receiving a narrow victory in Tuesday's election, but the looming question is what has changed since 2010 for him to keep his seat.

Three other justices were ousted for a ruling which led to legalizing same sex marriage, but Wiggins also was part of that ruling. Does this indicate Iowans are more accepting of same-sex marriage? Was it a misstep for special interest groups to alter their message? Or did the pro-retention supporters just do a better job getting their message across?

Those watching or involved in the campaigns said it's mostly speculation because nobody conducted exit polling on this issue but all could be valid, depending on perspective. It's also difficult to explain because the county by county voting is similar to 2010 – mostly urban areas on the eastern side and central part of the state voted "Yes" and more rural areas voted "No." The biggest difference seems to be that more people turned over the ballot and voted.

"One thing I think you can say with a high degree of certainty is the bar association's efforts made a big difference (this year), Todd Pettys, University of Iowa School of Law professor, said Wednesday. "The bar was flat-footed in 2010 with a feeble effort to educate the public of its views on politicizing the courts."

Pettys said this year the association organized the high profile bus tour shadowing conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats who launched a statewide "No Wiggins" bus tour. Members of the voluntary organization actively went out and talked to people about the Varnum decision and provided education on how the merit selection and retention system and their views on how important it is to keep courts fair and impartial.

Guy Cook, Des Moines attorney and president elect of state bar, said he remembered what a friend had said after 2010 that "you went to a knife fight with a law book and I didn't want that to happen again."

Cook agreed with Pettys, saying the bus tour was a big asset because it allowed members to have discussions with voters and immediately correct misinformation spread by the anti-retention group.

Cook and One Iowa Executive Director Donna Red Wing pointed to election results in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota, saying views on same-sex marriage have shifted across the nation and obviously in Iowa, making an impact in this election. Maine and Maryland passed initiatives in support of marriage equality and an anti-marriage equality amendment was defeated in Minnesota.

"Two years ago, I think some were so surprised by Iowa's same-sex ruling but couples married and the world didn't come to an end," Cook said. "I think there's recognition by those against same-sex marriage that a 'no' vote doesn't change the constitution, so don't throw a guy out for doing his job."

Red Wing said the retention vote "sent a strong message to Mr. Vander Plaats and his friends at the National Organization for Marriage - Iowans are proud of our state that values equal protection and all families," she said.

Pettys said Vander Plaats argument may have lost some traction because over the course of the campaign he claimed it wasn't just about the Varnum decision, it was about "judicial activism" but the argument has to be attached to the same-sex issue or it's just a "charge you make when judges make decisions you don't like."

Cook said now the big question is "did we put the genie back in the bottle" or will Vander Plaats mount another campaign in 2016 when the other remaining justices who ruled in Varnum are up for retention.

Vander Plaats wasn't available for comment Wednesday.

Greg Baker, executive director of Iowans for Freedom, said he didn't know what the group's plans would be but there would likely be "some form of retention effort" in 2016.

"It will be dependent on what the judges do," Baker said. "One thing that is obvious is that a lot of Iowans are not confident in the courts," Baker said. "The courts have a credibility issue and they need to restore impartiality."

Baker said they expected a tight race and knew it would be more difficult during a presidential election year. The county by county votes were similar to 2010 but there was a "wave of democratic support" for President Obama and more people voted.
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