Iowa Judges, Political Whim and 2012

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TIME’s legal columnist Adam Cohen writes this week that voters’ decision to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices whose ruling paved the way for gay marriage in the state is a cautionary tale against electoral tests for judicial appointee:

The Iowa vote is just the latest evidence that elections are a terrible way of choosing judges — whether the decision is putting them in office or removing them. The Constitution’s framers, who were brilliant in their sense of how government power should be allocated, had a very different idea about judicial selection. They decided federal judges should be appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress — with the people getting no say of any kind. Federal judges would then have lifetime tenure, insulating the third and equal branch of government from the pressures of the political majority.

If it sounds undemocratic, that’s because it is — and intentionally so. Judges decide what people’s fundamental rights are, and the founders understood that fundamental rights must not be put up for a popular vote. Judges are also responsible for protecting minority groups, which they might not be able to do if they had to answer to the will of the majority.

His thoughts on the Hawkeye coup are worth reading in full, but there’s another political angle to the story. The whole affair has boosted the profile of Bob Vander Plaats, the organizer and champion of the movement to unseat the trio of justices. Fresh off his victory, Vander Plaats will reportedly be selected to oversee the Iowa Family Policy Center, a 501(c)3 conservative activism group that’s a regular player in presidential caucus politics.

Vander Plaats’ allegiances on that front are easily inferred. Mike Huckabee endorsed his bid for governor in this year’s Republican primary. His opponent Terry Branstad, a popular former governor and the establishment choice, was backed by the likes Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Romney’s not necessarily an Iowa kind of guy — he spent big and lost big there in ’08 and his Mormon faith may pose problems for him among evangelicals. As early states go, he’s been spending a lot more time and money in New Hampshire this time around. But Palin, whose most fervent supporters are social-issues activists, would more likely rely on a strong showing in Iowa. (It’s worth noting that the IFPC tried to host Palin around this time last year, but struggled to raise the steep speaking fee.) Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in ’08 and, with allies like Vander Plaats, it’s certainly not a stretch to say he’d be a frontrunner there if he were to run again in ’12.

As Ben Smith notes, Huckabee is due to keynote an IFPC fundraiser on Nov. 21, the very day Vander Plaats’ new post is expected to be officially announced.  “He is coming not as a politician but as a pastor,” says organizer Pastor Dean Schmitt. “And he will share his heart about the needs for the church to be energized and engaged in our culture.” Not wanting his presidential prospects to be dismissed, Huckabee disputes the former point. As far as the culture of the bench is concerned, I think Adam Cohen would dispute the latter.