ELECTION 2012: Voters Rejected Most Partisan Attacks On The Judiciary

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ELECTION 2012: Voters Rejected Most Partisan Attacks On The Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo

With a slew of judicial races to watch, voters showed they have little tolerance for overtly politicizing the bench.

Radical conservative efforts to oust judges in Iowa and Florida failed on election day this year, but in other key judicial races conservatives were able to hold ground.

In Iowa, Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, the fourth Iowa Supreme Court justice targeted for a retention vote since the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously ruled to legalize same-sex marriage in 2009, only needed a simple majority of votes to win. With 83 percent of Iowa’s 1,689 precincts reporting Wiggins had secured 54 percent of the vote.

So far Wiggins is the only justice of the seven-judge bench to survive the political challenges from religious conservatives spawned by the decision. The three former justices, Marsha Ternus, David Baker and Michael Streit were all ousted in the 2010 midterm elections after socially-conservative Iowans, backed by cash from out-of-state conservative groups, successfully convinced voters that the same-sex marriage decision was grounds for dismissal of the justices. It was the first time since 1962, when Iowa adopted a merit-selection process that put justices on the ballot that a justice was not retained. 

The final three participants in the 2009 decision, Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel are up for retention votes in 2016.

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Meanwhile in Florida, three supreme court justices who had also been targeted by Republicans and conservative groups because of decisions supporting Obamacare were all retained by voters. Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince will each serve another six-year term despite the fact that the Florida Republican Party’s executive committee had unanimously voted to oppose the justices, warning they were “liberal” and “too extreme.” This marked the first time a Florida political party has taken a position in a retention race.

It wasn’t all good news on the judicial elections front though. Alabama’s former chief justice Ray Moore won his old seat back, defeating Jefferson County Circuit Judge Bob Vance, a Democrat. Moore was removed from the bench in 2003 after refusing to remove a 5,2000-pound granite Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the Alabama Judicial Building in Birmingham. And, in Michigan, early vote totals indicate the state’s supreme court will continue to be split 4 to 3 along ideological lines with conservatives holding onto the majority.

The most clearly partisan attacks on the judiciary appear to have failed, despite initial successes in Iowa in 2010. And while Moore’s election is a disappointment, it’s not a surprise given the overall demographics of the election in Alabama. In short, equal rights advocates still have some battles ahead, but voters, mostly, seem to understand the critical importance of an impartial judiciary.