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Focus on Iowa justices’ performance, not politics, roundtable participants say

Trish Mehaffey, CR Gazette –

The key to this year’s judicial retention election may be educating voters that it’s about whether a judge is doing his/her job, not about politics and how that judge rules on one issue, according to a roundtable discussion Wednesday.

The movement targeting the judiciary isn’t going away, University of Iowa School of Law Dean of Civic Engagement Linda McGuire said Wednesday during the judicial retention roundtable. The movement started a few years ago across the nation and impacted Iowa in 2010, when three state Supreme Court justices were ousted because of a ruling which led to legalizing same-sex marriage.

The state’s anti-retention campaign relaunched last month when the Iowa GOP and conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats said it was their mission to give Justice David Wiggins a “No” vote because he was part of the same-sex marriage ruling.

McGuire, asked by the League of Women Voters of Johnson County to lead the discussion, said she thinks if voters look at the Iowa Bar Association’s performance reviews of the judges, in which she participated, they can see that all the judges and justices scored well. The reviews’ consensus was that all of the justices should be retained Nov. 6, including four Supreme Court justices and two court of appeal judges up for retention.

The group of about 22 women and two men seemed to think the best way to battle the “outside money” anti-retention campaign should be a grassroots effort. One woman said it was tough when she sees “all those ads, so what do we do?”

“Most people just don’t vote for judges,” Carol Seaziani of Iowa City said. “Is there any way to get publicity in the newspapers or in a radio forum?”

Some suggested knocking on doors, talking to friends or emailing friends to get the word out.

McGuire pointed out that the Iowa Bar Association and other legal organizations did respond to the anti-retention proponents and Justice Not Politics, a coalition to protect courts and the merit selection process which also sponsored the roundtable, has provided information about the judicial process, the judges’ performance reviews and bios as a way to build a statewide campaign to support the judicial process.

Zander Abrams, a third-year law student at the University of Iowa, said the campaign isn’t just about same-sex marriage, because the judiciary is being attacked across the country. He said he’s supporting the judges and justices because law isn’t politics, and he believes the judiciary should be fair and impartial and “it’s scary” that some want court rulings to be based on a campaign contribution check.

Pat Jensen of Iowa City said “good government is hard to sell.” She thinks the anti-retention campaign is about politics and the Varnum ruling. “They want judges who will agree with them.”

Connie Champion of Iowa City questioned whether it was a good idea for an average citizen to vote on judges.

McGuire said the voters need to be informed and can be if they look at the performance reviews. Attorneys across the state review the judges on overall performance, demeanor, their knowledge of law and efficiency issues, and they are asked to only review judges that they have personal knowledge about.

“You only have to be ignorant by choice…you can go on (bar’s) website, read the reviews and look at their bios,” McGuire said.

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