Figuring Out Iowa’s Judicial Retention Votes

By Claudia Thrane
October 11, 2020

I just received my absentee ballot in the mail — how exciting it is to think that my vote can be counted in the effort to rid ourselves from this Trump administration. It takes a while to read through all the names and offices on the front of the ballot, from state representatives to senators to county sheriff, soil and water conservation districts, hospital trustees and more. I do recognize many names and I know for certain who I am voting for and why.

Then I turn the page and I find the judicial sections — Supreme Court Justice, Court of Appeals Judges, District 5C Court Justices, and Associate Judges; other than one name, I do not recognize anyone on the back of the ballot.

Who do I want to choose to be retained in office?

As I was trying to figure out who these people are, I received a text from a friend who was wondering the same thing. It seems that I am not alone when it comes to figuring out the judicial ballot and deciding who should be kept in their office.

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According to the, judicial retention elections are intended to focus on the professional competency of Iowa’s judges rather than the popularity of individual rulings. In a retention election, voters decide whether a judge should be retained or removed from office. In 1962, Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment that replaced elections of judges with merit selection and retention elections, which help curb the influence of political parties and special interest groups in the selection of Iowa’s judges, among other things.

This is great, but what about the judge’s personal views on certain issues? Although we all know that judges must follow the rule of law, it is extremely important to learn about their own beliefs that may play a part on their rulings. This is exactly the issue taking place at the federal level, where both parties are eager to appoint their own Supreme Court justices with the person that aligns with their belief system.

In 2010, conservative groups successfully pushed to vote out three Iowa Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of legalizing same sex marriage in 2009. Republicans have appointed six of the seven current Iowa Supreme Court justices, including four on the 2020 ballot.

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To get a different perspective, I called Connie Ryan, the Executive Director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa — she has a lot of experience around the judiciary.

“In my opinion, the Court should not be politicized,” she told me. “There are many times where I disagree with the Court on different decisions, but I do not base my decision on whether to retain a justice or a judge based on one decision. I base my decision on judicial conduct, ethics, and their fitness to serve.”

Many union members in Iowa are still angry with the controversial 2019 decision upholding the 2017 law limiting public worker union’s rights.

Ryan pointed out the probable consequences of voting the justices off the bench.

“If people choose to vote the four justices that are on the ballot off the bench, Gov. Reynolds will appoint four new ones and they might not be more moderate. Two will probably be even more conservative than what we have on the Court,” she explained. “During the nominating process, the Governor has more power in that process than any other person because she decides more than 50% of who’s on the nominating commission, plus she has the final pick of all of those people, so she has a great deal of power.”

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That is thanks to the legislation last year that changed the makeup of the nominating commission for the Supreme Court. Reynolds signed a Republican-backed law giving the governor an additional appointment on the nominating commission that selects the Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges.

Unfortunately, the Iowa Supreme Court is out of balance since we only have one moderate judge.

Looking for a different perspective, I reached out to retired lawyer Ivan Webber, who for many years practiced in the areas of municipal and governmental law, among others.

“Judges should be committed to seeing law as a means to protect and uphold the rights and dignity of people,” he said. “I do not see Justices Mansfield and Waterman as meeting these criteria and would not support their retention.”

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This background on the Judicial Ballot is helpful to me.

There is also the issue of Public Measure 1, the last item in the ballot. The question here is regarding whether Iowa should hold a convention to revise the Iowa constitution and propose amendments. Voting “yes” would support calling for a constitutional convention. A vote “no” opposes the convention.

One thing I know, if those currently in power would change the Iowa constitution, I would be on the losing end of that convention. I will vote accordingly.

Yes, it can be confusing at times, especially for someone like myself, a naturalized citizen. For me, it is important to understand what I am voting for so that it can be beneficial for me and for the country.

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So whether we agree or disagree with the justices’ rulings, whether we want to retain those four justices or not, we need to measure the long term consequences of our vote. By now, I think we know a thing or two about the consequences of our vote with the last four years of Trump’s administration. As an immigrant and as a naturalized citizen of this country, I take my vote seriously — it is a privilege many would love to have, and many others have died for.

“Vote like our lives depend on in it, because it does.”  This phrase is so true now more than ever.


by Claudia Thrane
Posted 10/11/20

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