IOWA CITY (AP) — Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins isn't widely known outside his state's legal community, and even inside that group he isn't particularly popular.
But the question of whether he should keep his job has become one of the most fiercely contested judicial issues on the Nov. 6 ballot because of what he symbolizes in the debate over same-sex marriage and the role of courts.
Three years ago Wiggins and his six colleagues ruled that the state's law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, which made Iowa the third state to recognize gay marriage, and the first state not on the coasts. The decision triggered an outcry by conservatives who, a year later, mounted an aggressive — and successful — campaign to defeat three of the justices whose terms were up for ballot review.
Now the future of Wiggins, whose term is up for review this year, is sparking an even bigger battle as liberal groups and lawyers shocked by the outcome in 2010 fight back on his behalf. The race is being watched not only as a barometer of the public's changing attitude toward gay marriage but also as a message for judges who might take up similar cases in the future.
“2010 was like a hand grenade into the Supreme Court chambers, and we don't want to have that repeated,” said Des Moines attorney Guy Cook, president-elect of the Iowa State Bar Association, which is campaigning in support of Wiggins.
The opposing sides have launched “Vote Yes” and “No Wiggins” campaigns and are spending heavily to get their messages out. The National Organization for Marriage provided $100,000 for an anti-Wiggins TV ad, and conservative politicians Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal led a cross-state bus tour denouncing Wiggins as a judicial activist. At each stop they were trailed by a bus carrying members of the bar who defended Wiggins against that accusation.
The passion around an obscure state justice captures the heightened tension this year over same-sex marriage, with questions on the ballot in four states and surveys showing that public opinion is shifting on the subject.
Next month, voters will see same-sex measures on the ballots in Minnesota, Maine, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Polls look promising for passage in all but Minnesota, where the numbers are too close to call.
Those states plus Iowa could contribute to “a watershed moment” for gay rights, said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, a gay rights group supporting Wiggins.
“The reality is, if you're living in Alabama or South Carolina, you don't look to California or New York as your yardstick. But you do look to Iowa. If it can happen here, it can happen in those other places. That's part of the importance,” Red Wing said.
During the bus tour, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said that defeating the justices shows that gay marriage isn't inevitable and can't be imposed by the courts.
“Change the course of history. Take a bold stand,” he told supporters. “Do not allow activist judges to rewrite your constitution. Hold them accountable and the world will be watching.”
Legal experts say that if the Iowa justices had not voted as they did, they would have been allowing discrimination to be written into the Iowa Constitution.
More state court decisions on same-sex marriage lawsuits are expected in coming years. Currently, six states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage while more than 30 prohibit it.
Iowans did not embrace the Iowa court's ruling when it came down after a lawsuit brought by gay couples who were denied marriage licenses. Justices up for retention in 2010 received about 45 percent of the vote, leading to the first judicial ousters since the state adopted a merit-selection system in 1962.
But views have changed as more than 4,500 same-sex couples have married in Iowa since 2009. A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in February found that voters overwhelmingly opposed amending the constitution to ban gay marriage. Those surveyed were split on the 2009 ruling and one-third said they “don't care much” about the issue.
Several other factors also may help Wiggins, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2003, as he seeks a second eight-year term. His supporters are running a stronger campaign than the pro-retention effort in 2010. The presidential race also means the electorate will be larger and more liberal than the one that turned out for the GOP-dominated midterm election.
“It makes it more difficult,” said Bob Vander Plaats, whose group, the Family Leader, leads the opposition.
The bar's boost for Wiggins comes even though its members like him less than many of his colleagues. A survey conducted by the bar every two years on the performance of judges up for retention found that 63 percent of lawyers believed Wiggins should be retained — the second-lowest of 74 judges on the ballot. Lawyers gave Wiggins only adequate marks for his temperament and demeanor, and backers concede he can be brusque.
The process of replacing his ousted colleagues, including Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, also brought Wiggins criticism. He headed the committee that interviewed candidates and recommended eight men and one woman as finalists to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. Branstad appointed three white men, making the court one of the only ones in the nation without a female member.
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