Will Conservatives Try To Reshape The Iowa Supreme Court (Again)?

By Nikoel Hytrek

June 27, 2023

When the Iowa Supreme Court failed to reinstate a 2018 six-week abortion ban, the 3-3 split sparked reactions across the political spectrum.

Democratic figures and reproductive rights organizations cheered the decision. Republicans and others who oppose the idea that pregnant people and their doctors should make decisions about what happens during pregnancy, did not.

“To say that today’s lack of action by the Iowa Supreme Court is a disappointment is an understatement,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds in a release.

“But the fight is not over,” she continued, noting she and others were “reviewing our options in preparation for continuing the fight.”

Because the court split 3-3, there wasn’t an official decision, and a district court judge’s decision held. In 2022, that judge ruled that, under Iowa rules, the court didn’t have the ability to overturn the injunction, and there had been no significant change in the law. Three of the Iowa Supreme Court justices, Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield agreed.

Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader, a conservative, evangelical lobbying organization in Iowa has called for the resignation, impeachment, or ousting of the three justices who decided the six-week ban should not go into effect.

“These three dissenters have shown blatant disrespect for the constitution, the people’s representatives and we the people,” he tweeted on June 17, the day after the decision was released. Vander Plaats has also called for a special session specifically to pass abortion restrictions before the next legislative session in January 2024.

At a Friday press conference, Iowa Democratic leaders called out that reaction.

“Democrats would oppose any campaign to oust judges for doing their jobs. Democrats will oppose any efforts to usurp the authority of an independent branch of government, and Iowans should know the risk here in what we’re doing,” said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst.

She said Vander Plaats has the right to his opinion and to start a campaign, but getting elected officials involved crosses the line.

“To engage elected officials in doing it in a way that would usurp their independence is absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate,” Konfrst said.

A Past Campaign

In that tweet, Vander Plaats referenced a previous campaign he was part of to remove justices who ruled same-sex marriage should be legal in Iowa, according to the Iowa Constitution.

The 2009 decision was unanimous, but in November 2010, three justices were up for retention, which is when Iowans can vote on whether a select number of judges should keep their seats. All three were ousted and Vander Plaats led the campaign to make it happen.

But in 2012, voters retained Justice David Wiggins, who had also taken part in the Varnum decision and was up for retention.

The current seven-member Iowa Supreme Court is made up of Republican appointees. Christensen was appointed by Reynolds while Waterman and Mansfield were appointed by former Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011, to replace those who were ousted in 2010.

All three decided not to let the six-week abortion ban go into effect.

The other three justices (David May, Christopher McDonald, and Matthew McDermott) were appointed by Reynolds. As was Justice Dana Oxley, who recused herself from the case because of a potential conflict of interest.

Independent Branch of Government

“The Iowa Supreme Court has consistently reaffirmed that autonomy and dominion of your own body are at the very heart of what it means to be free,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart. “We know that Iowans are sick and tired of Republican politicians inserting themselves into deeply personal health care decisions. They have no business telling folks what to do with their bodies.”

Democrats do expect retaliation from Republicans, though, but they said they can’t be sure what it would look like.

“We’ve heard directly from the governor’s mouth that she wanted her own attorney general. She wanted her own state auditor, and apparently, she wants her own courts, too,” said Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines).

She said it’s clear from the written decision the justices carefully considered the law and the precedents they were asked to weigh. Waterman laid out five reasons why he couldn’t let the ban go into effect and Christensen and Mansfield signed onto his reasoning.

“It wasn’t a partisan decision on their part. And it’s important to have that kind of check and balance in our state government,” Trone Garriott said. “It’s important that they remain independent. And so we need to remind Iowans that we do have this important aspect to our government which keeps us in line and keeps us following the law appropriately.”

She explained how Republicans have reacted to other decisions made by the court.

“We’ve seen a lot of frustration when the courts don’t go the way of the majority party. And we saw that frustration reflected in our state budget for the courts this year because it was just barely high enough to keep them from having to lay people off,” she said.

Ultimately, Hart said, it’s crucial that Iowa’s government continues to be fair and democratic.

“An independent judiciary is essential to balanced government,” she said. “But Kim Reynolds and Iowa Republicans expect the Iowa Supreme Court to bend to their will and endorse their harmful actions.”

 

Nikoel Hytrek
6/26/23

 

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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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