The Iowa Supreme Court is composed of seven justices who serve an initial one year term after their appointment by the governor. Judicial appointees come from a list of licensed attorneys compiled by the State Judicial Nominating Commission. Justices are re-elected every eight years and may serve on the court until they reach the age of 72 at which time they become eligible for a senior judgeship. To attain the designation of senior judge, a retired justice must be appointed to the senior judge program by the high court; currently there are two. In 2010 Iowans will vote on the retention of three Supreme Court justices including: Chief Justice Marsha K. Ternus, Michael J. Streit and David L. Baker.
Three Republicans: Rod Roberts, Bob Vander Plaats and Terry Branstad are vying for the opportunity to face incumbent governor Chet Culver in November’s general election. Roberts and Vander Plaats, are very attractive options for social conservatives while Terry Branstad is seen as more of a moderate.
In April 2009 the Iowa Supreme Court issued a unanimous verdict overturning a ten year old ban on same sex marriage in Iowa. In a recent debate aired on Iowa Public Television, the three Republican candidates debated many issues that included the gay marriage ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court. Roberts and Vander Plaats said they favored overturning the gay marriage ruling and would favor ousting the Iowa Supreme Court justices whose unanimous decision last year legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Branstad said that while he does oppose the ruling he is not willing to discuss whether the judges running for re-election should be retained.
In his book, “The Supreme Court: the personalities and rivalries that defined America”, Jeffery Rosen observes that it is the Chief Justice who determines the final outcome of rulings handed down by the court. Rosen further explores this topic by arguing that on rulings that are certain to be considered a “land mark decision” the Chief Justice often wishes to show a strong and united court and will seek a unanimous verdict. While Rosen applies his observations regarding judicial rulings made by the U.S. Supreme Court such dynamic surely comes into play by any judicial body where multiple justices hand down opinions on the same issue resulting in a final verdict. Keeping this in mind, it is quite possible that Chief Justice Ternus realized that the final verdict handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court would send a very loud message and wished to show a unified court standing strong behind its decision. Therefore, it is possible that she advocated for a unanimous opinion despite the existence of dissenting votes.
In conclusion, regardless of one’s opinion on the issue of gay marriage, it is clear that the Iowa Supreme Court opinion on gay marriage has left an indelible mark on Iowa’s legal system and impacted Iowa’s social fabric. Additionally, the “throw them bums out” call uttered by candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Iowa governor will surely help shape Iowa’s judicial and political landscape in 2010.