DES MOINES, Iowa — Stung by a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in Iowa last year, out-of-state conservative groups have been pouring time and money into an effort to unseat three of the court's seven justices.
At a Statehouse rally Monday to kick off a bus tour, gay marriage opponents pleaded their case for why voters on Nov. 2 should opt not to retain Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, and justices David Baker and Michael Streit. Iowa voters have never ousted a state Supreme Court justice.
"I can't overstate the significance of what is about to happen in Iowa," said Brian Brown, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage. "The whole country is looking at you. This cannot be overstated."
At a counter rally about 100 yards away, organizers argued that anti-gay rights groups that have been spent more than $600,000 to oust the justices are only focused on the one issue and don't care about the damage they'll do to the state's judicial appointment process.
"In January, when the consequences of this effort come to fruition, the special interest advocates will be gone — back to Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Alabama," said former Attorney General Bonnie Campbell. "They won't be here after Nov. 3, but the rest of us will be."
The court joined in a 7-0 ruling last year upholding a lower court's decision that found that a state law limiting marriage to between a man and a woman violated the constitutional rights of equal protection.
Those who want to oust the three justices argue that by striking down a law banning gay marriage, the high court in effect, amended the state constitution, which can only be done through a referendum. They say the justices were legislating from the bench, and should therefore be removed.
"We are going to send a message all the way across America. These judges are rogue judges and they're arrogant," Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King told the crowd Monday, standing in front of a bus emblazoned with the justices faces with the word "No," superimposed on them.
Des Moines resident Art Arrett, who attended the rally, said legislating should be left to legislators, not judges.
"It's not their job to make laws," Arrett said.
Those who want to retain the justices, including many law groups, say ousting them would upset the balance of power. They note that the three justices were appointed by Republican and Democratic governors, including Terry Branstad, the state's longtime Republican governor who is seeking a return to office after a 12-year break. He appointed Ternus.
"I believe in keeping politics out of it," said Des Moines resident Harry Shipley, who attended the rallies.
Thus far, the campaign to remove the justices has spent more than $650,000 and those who want to retain them have spent $227,000, much of it on television ads.
The National Organization for Marriage has been the biggest spender, contributing $435,000 to efforts to remove the judges. About $100,000 has come from the AFA Action Inc., the political arm of the Mississippi-based American Family Association. The Campaign for Working Families, a Washington-based group, also spent $100,000, and the Washington-based Family Research Council added $18,000. The Iowa-based Iowa Family Policy Center has spent roughly $10,000.
The three justices haven't formed political action committees or raised money for their retention. However, Ternus has recently given speeches in support of judiciary independence.
Supporters of the justices say they're worried because some gay marriage opponents have called on voters to oppose all 74 judges on the ballot this year. Bob Vander Plaats, who is heading the campaign to remove the justices, said he's also heard that many people plan to vote against all judges up for retention votes.
Eugene Meyer, commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said at a rally held by justice supporters that he worried that the widespread removal of judges would cripple the justice system.
Former Republican lieutenant governor Art Neu said he's also worried about that possibility.
"I don't think any of us can contemplate the breakdown of our legal system should anything close to what they're proposing take place," said Neu.
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