There will be much written and said in the coming days to explain the story of the 2010 election. Much of the punditry will focus on the massive red wave that swept the nation turning much of the U.S. electoral map into Republican hands from Governorships, to statehouses to the historic 60-plus gain in the U.S. House.
However, a quieter narrative occurred on Tuesday. While it isn’t getting quite the press, it deserves much more attention as its results bear long-term debate and consequences.
Iowa voters threw three state Supreme Court Justices from the bench on Tuesday. The ballot-box rebuke was fueled largely by a 2009 decision the justices made to allow same-sex couples to marry.
This isn’t a column about gay marriage. Although the campaign to toss the judges was fueled by the passionate issue, that’s not the message the rest of the country should take from the election’s results.
Seven justices sit on the Iowa Supreme Court, and their decision to allow gay marriage was unanimous. With their ruling, the judges declared that a law barring same-sex marriage violated the constitution’s equal-protection rights of gay and lesbian couples who wish to marry. The justices serve staggered terms, and the three up for retention in 2010 were booted from the bench on Tuesday. Vote totals showed Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit with less than the simple majority needed to stay on the bench.
Their removal marked the first time a Supreme Court Justice had not been retained since the retention system was adopted in 1962.
The results should lead to a discussion about the rights of the voters versus those who sit on the bench. To date, voters have soundly rejected gay marriage every time it’s appeared on the ballot. In the places where the right exists, the right is due purely to judicial fiat.
There are sound arguments on both sides as to why a retention system should be used. Should judges have to campaign? How can they make fair and impartial decisions that may be unpopular when they have to face voters in the next election?
However, should judges have the right to overrule the will of the people? Such has often been the case in the gay marriage debate. The people reject it at the ballot box only to have judges throw out their decision.
There is sound logic behind the checks and balances that make this country run. But the court systems are supposed to provide checks against other branches of government – not a check against the populous as a whole.
I don’t have the answers, but I think the Iowa voters’ decision and the court case that led to throwing members of the Supreme Court off the bench should certainly lead to the questions.