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Out-of-state money is flowing into Iowa in an attempt to oust Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins for his 2009 vote in a ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
Among the big spenders are the National Organization for Marriage, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has worked to defeat same-sex marriage proposals, and a political action committee founded by former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum.
“I think there (are) a lot of organizations ... who see the threat of judicial activism as really having a negative impact on the family,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of The Family Leader, one of the organizations opposing Wiggins' retention.
Supporters of Wiggins also are stepping up to keep him on the bench, but campaign finance reports indicate they're being outspent. Most of the supporters' money appears to be coming from within Iowa, much of it from law firms.
In 2009, Wiggins and the rest of the court unanimously ruled that an Iowa law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. Their decision made the Hawkeye State the third in the nation to recognize gay marriage, and the first non-coastal state.
The decision triggered an outcry among conservatives. In 2010, Vander Plaats, of Grimes, Iowa, a three-time candidate for the GOP nomination for governor, spearheaded a successful campaign to defeat the three justices who were subject to a retention vote that year.
Wiggins is the only justice on the court at the time of the gay marriage ruling who is up for retention this year.
His supporters see the retention vote as key to preserving the judiciary's independence. Opponents, meanwhile, see Wiggins' ouster as a way to curb what they see as judicial activism.
Reports filed to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board show several large contributions in support of his removal, including:
» CitizenLink, a policy arm of the evangelical group Focus on the Family, spent at least $50,000 to fund anti-Wiggins bus tours organized by The Family Leader.
» Two other groups contributed to The Family Leader: at least $25,000 from Patriot Voices, a political action committee founded by Santorum; and at least $10,000 CatholicVote.org.
» Numerous individuals also made contributions, including $4,000 from a woman in Grimes and $7 from a man in Alexandria, Va., to fund the bus tours.
The pro-Wiggins camp also is not without big-time donations.
Des Moines lawyer Roxanne Conlin — a former U.S. attorney and the 2010 Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate — provided $25,000 to help fund a direct mail campaign organized by Justice Not Politics.
That group, which says it's countering efforts by “extremists” to hijack Iowa's courts, has spent more than $128,000 to keep Wiggins on the court.
“Of course some (donors) are attorneys. They have an interest in the legal system in Iowa,” said Sally Pederson, former Iowa lieutenant governor and co-chairwoman of Justice Not Politics. “The vast majority of donors, I think, are just regular citizens.”
Campaign disclosure reports indicate more than $170,000 has been spent to retain Wiggins, while more than $248,000 has been spent on his ouster.
Despite some big contributions, this year's campaign has been lower profile than in 2010.
The National Organization for Marriage, for instance, spent more than $635,000 two years ago. This year, reports indicate the group has spent about $140,000, most of it on television ads advocating Wiggins' ouster.
“There are outside groups who see this as a major front in the culture wars,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, “so they have this particular interest in pursuing this and ... putting another trophy on their wall.”
As the election approaches, Wiggins supporters are advising voters to be sure to turn over their ballot if they want to vote on his retention. In 2010, nearly 150,000 voters skipped that step.
But much of the debate has taken place during dueling bus tours across Iowa.
During one stop by the anti-Wiggins camp in Council Bluffs, Patriot Voices Iowa State Chair Kim Lehman warned that the 2009 ruling was an encroachment by the judiciary. “They are coming, and they want to take your liberty,” she said.
Pro-Wiggins groups have held counter rallies at the same times and places as the anti-retention rallies, and they have enlisted the help of western Iowa native and filmmaker Scott Siepker.
He's best known as the caustic commentator in the “Iowa Nice” online video that went viral in January, around the time of the caucus. In a new video, Siepker uses humor to defend the 7-0 marriage ruling.
“Iowa has been ahead of the curve for a century. We've got a good thing here. Don't let politics screw it up,” he says.
A Des Moines Register poll conducted in late September indicated 49 percent of likely Iowa voters want to keep Wiggins, while 41 percent would like to remove him.
No matter what the polls say, Wiggins' future on the court may come down to which side is more motivated and better organized, said Goldford, the Drake professor.
“This will be a more retention-friendly electorate than the 2010 was,” he said. “Is it enough? That's what remains to be seen.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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