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Top stories of the 2010s: Iowa voters oust 3 state justices in 2010

Election fueled by anger over same-sex marriage ruling

Iowa Supreme Court Justices Bruce Zager (from left), Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Brent Appel, Daryl Hecht, David
Iowa Supreme Court Justices Bruce Zager (from left), Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Brent Appel, Daryl Hecht, David Wiggins and Chief Justice Mark Cady wait for the start of the Jan. 14, 2014, Condition of the State address at the Capitol in Des Moines. The court was reshaped after voters in 2010 refused to retain three justices. Efforts to remove other justices in 2012 and 2016 failed. (The Gazette)
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The eve of a new decade presents a perfect time to reflect on the past 10 years, to look at the changes in our lives and in our state and nation. For Iowa, The Gazette chose 10 storylines of the decade that have changed or will change the state’s trajectory. This is one of those stories. See the full list and read them here.

Iowa voters in 2010 ousted three state Supreme Court justices who joined in the unanimous 2009 Varnum decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Same-sex marriage had been legalized in only three states — Massachusetts, Connecticut and California — before Iowa’s Varnum v. Brien ruling on April 3, 2009.

Religious conservatives strongly opposed the ruling, and the Family Leader and the Iowa Family Policy Center PAC organized an effort to turn out three of the justices who would be standing for retention on the 2010 ballot.

Typically, judicial retention is a routine ballot question, skipped by many voters. Only four judges ever had been voted out — out of more than 1,300 standing for retention — since judicial retention was put on Iowa ballots in 1964. No Supreme Court justices had ever been rejected.

But in 2010, 87 percent of Iowa voters checked “yes” or “no” for retention. Three justices — Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit — were supported by only 45 percent or less of Iowa voters. They lost their jobs.

Efforts in 2012 and 2016 to remove other justices who joined in the decision failed, mainly because attorneys and others began speaking out, explaining the role of courts. And by June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled same-sex marriage legal across the United States.

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Ternus, freed from the professional restraint on judges to keep their opinions to themselves, has since said — repeatedly — that if voters didn’t like the Varnum decision, they should get lawmakers to change the state constitution, that the justices were simply enforcing the rights guaranteed in it.

After the 2010 stunner, state Supreme Court justices began holding sessions around the state, showing citizens how the court operated.

Justice Mark Cady, who wrote the Varnum decision, was selected as the court’s new chief justice. He went before the Iowa Legislature in 2011, shortly after the ouster of his three colleagues, saying it was the courts’ duty to review legislative actions.

“Upholding the constitution is the most important function of the courts,” he said. “Courts serve the law. ... Our constitution speaks with principle, and so do we.”

Cady died unexpectedly in November. Gov. Kim Reynolds will name someone to fill that vacancy after receiving recommendations from the Iowa Judicial Nominating Commission.

The GOP-controlled Legislature this year gave the governor more power over who sits on that commission.

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