How Iowa Became A Lab For Conservative Attacks On Judges

The Senate recently cleared a procedural hurdle for three of Obama’s appointees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to get a confirmation vote so they can finally take the bench. Led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate effectively gutted the power for the minority to filibuster executive and judicial appointees except in the case of seating Supreme Court justices.

Blocking presidential nominees is nothing new — though the Herculean efforts of the GOP to block nearly every appointee during Obama’s tenure is ripe to become legend. But in our hyper-politicized society judicial appointments are particularly contentious.

Increasingly, so are judicial retention votes, which means that after judge is appointed, the citizenry gets to vote periodically to retain or dismiss a judge.

A majority of states have retention votes. Until recently, these votes have gotten little to no attention by the press let alone discussion around the kitchen table. Then, in 2010, one powerful Christian political group in Iowa made targeting so-called “activist” judges part of its mission.

The Family Leader (TFL) headed by Bob Vander Plaats, whose name has recently been floated as a possible contender for the Republican nomination for Senate, launched an aggressive and ultimately successful campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court Justices. After these three judges ruled in favor of marriage equality, making Iowa one of the first states to allow same-sex couples to marry in the state, Vander Plaats and TFL mustered the anti-gay marriage troops.

Money poured in from The National Organization for Marriage, The Alliance Defense Fund, The Family Research Council and the American Family Association. Well north of $500,000 was dumped into Iowa for the cause. The highlight of the campaign was a 20-stop bus tour coordinated by TFL that drew perennial right-wing religious favorites like Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Tony Perkins and Rick Santorum. Each stop bashed gay marriage, warning Iowans that it was a slippery slope toward incest, polygamy and man-on-dog love.

It worked. Not only did the judges lose their jobs, Vander Plaats and TFL drove their right-wing base and single-issue voters to the polls. This momentum helped TFL endorsed presidential candidate Rick Santorum to narrowly (and belatedly) win the Iowa caucus.

Now, Vander Plaats and The Family Leader are at it again. This time the target is Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano. Her crime? Granting an injunction against a law that would end telemed abortion in Iowa.

Telemed services allow women, typically in rural areas away from any clinic, access to abortion care services they would otherwise not have. A doctor “meets” a woman via webcam then prescribes medication to induce a chemical abortion. Then, under the in-person supervision of a trained medical professional the woman takes the pill.

The Family Leader and Vander Plaats have aggressively jumped in this fight as well. Just days after Romano’s Nov. 5 ruling, a post went up on TFL’s website. Under the title “Remember the Romano” TFL supposes Judge Romano didn’t “learn a lesson” from the Supreme Court vote stating “The FAMiLY LEADER [sic] encourages Iowans to remember Judge Karen Romano’s activism when she is up for retention in November 2016.”

The Des Moines Register’s Editorial Board took exception to TFL’s willingness to target yet another judge who didn’t rule they way they wanted. Writing in a November 8, 2013 editorial Iowa’s largest daily cautions against Vander Plaats style of judicial process “for powerful and well financed special interest groups to threaten judges who don’t follow its dictates with a call for removal in the next retention election.”

Vander Plaats responded with a column of his own. In it he makes well-known war on women claims that Judge Romano’s ruling will lead to killing babies by “remotely discharging death-inducing pills.” And although The Family Leader has denied they are targeting Romano, another ouster tour may be in the offing. Romano is up for retention vote in 2016 – another presidential election year.

With Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses the beltway press sealed Vander Plaats status as so-called “Kingmaker” in 2011-2012. Vander Plaats was featured on TV, radio and even profiled by the New York Times. He held the door for every single Republican candidate who stumped throughout the state; if you wanted the GOP nod in Iowa you had to go through Vander Plaats.

Targeting Romano is as much about the stay in favor of telemed abortion as it is about political power and strategy. Vander Plaats and The Family Leader must continue to fundraise on the back of religious right-wing causes. Nothing pad the coffers like abortion and gay marriage.

Vander Plaats possible run for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by long-time Democrat Tom Harkin reinforces that his actions and that of his political machine The Family Leader shouldn’t be discounted.

The punitive model created by The Family Leader targeting justices can be replicated in other states. As model legislation (like “fetal pain” bills or 20 week abortion bans) is floated in one state to assess its feasibility in another, so is judicial retention. With hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion increasingly make their way to state courts Americans can expect more and more “bus tours” by Christian-political groups designed to drive the base to the polls and bring big money to their causes.

Andy Kopsa is a freelance investigative reporter based in New York City. Her work has published with The Atlantic, Village Voice Media, Ms., Al Jazeera, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among many others. She is a 2013 recipient of The Knights Grant for Reporting on Religion in American Public Life through USC Annenberg and the winner of a 2013 Best Investigative Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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