Behind the Fall of Iowa's Judicial Gods
by Dr. Richard G. Lee    Tue, Nov 23, 2010, 10:08 AM

Serving on the Iowa Supreme Court used to be one of the safest jobs in the nation. For 48 years, not a single justice was voted out of office. But on Tuesday, November 2, Iowans overturned decades of precedence and removed all three justices on the ballot. The next day a New York Times headline story echoed the results, Ouster of Iowa Judges Sends Signal to Bench.


Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit had faced sharp criticism for rulings opponents decried as judicial activism, including the court's  unanimous decision last year to legalize same sex marriage.

"Six months ago, most pundits said it was absolutely unthinkable," says David Lane, a conservative activist who spearheaded the anti- retention effort. "But the historic result of this election shows how disconnected our government has become from reality and from the people to whom it is accountable. Voters have sent a clear message that they want government to return to the constitutional course from which it has strayed."

A southern California operative, Lane began organizing religious leaders around the country for political causes in the early 1990's. In July, he was hosting Iowa pastors through the Iowa Renewal Project when the discussion turned towards the court's ruling on same-sex marriage. "People are at an utter loss with the judicial gods imposing their will on the American people through the courts, i.e., school prayer, abortion, homosexual marriage, etc..," Lane said. "There was a lot of complaining and criticizing, but nobody had a plan to address it."

Lane thought they might have a shot at unseating one or more of the justices if they channeled their discontent into meaningful action. The first step was to assemble a team - but that would require resources so he approached his friends Newt Gingrich and Don Wildmon; Gingrich, one of the finest strategic political thinkers in America and Wildmon, a fellow cultural warrior and founder of the American Family Association, which is known as the most influential pro-family organization in the nation.


Convinced of the possibilities for success, Gingrich jump started Iowa for Freedom with the initial seed money and Wildmon instantly committed the support of AFA Action, his group's political arm.

Lane asked Bob Vander Plaats, a Sioux City businessman who had recently finished second in the Republican gubernatorial primary, to serve as the Spokesman for the Iowa for Freedom effort to remove the three Iowa Justices. During his campaign, Vander Plaats had promised to issue an executive order nullifying the Supreme Court's ruling if elected. He was a natural front man who brought an established statewide base of support.

To develop a campaign plan, Lane then turned to political strategist Wayne

Hamilton, a principal at Texas-based Murphy Turner Associates. Forty-eight hours after their initial conversation, Lane, Hamilton and Craig Murphy, met in to Sioux City for what was supposed to be a one-day meeting with Vander Plaats. Murphy returned home, but Lane and Hamilton ended up staying in Iowa as they commissioned an early opinion poll. When the results showed a slim possibility for victory, Hamilton extended his hotel reservation for what would turn out to be a three-month stay.

In August, they formed Iowa for Freedom as an umbrella organization to coordinate and lead the efforts of likeminded groups across the state. Pro-retention supporters instantly dismissed it as an insignificant group of extremists that was out to politicize the judiciary - which is exactly what Lane, Vander Plaats and Hamilton hoped they would say.

It was clear early on that the essential issue of the campaign was not the court's ruling on homosexual marriage itself, but judicial activism. Lane framed the campaign as, "unelected and unaccountable Judges are unworthy to rule a free people".

"Our polling data showed that Iowans viewed the court as arrogant and elitist," Lane said. "People were concerned about judges using the court to trample on all kinds of rights. Every time they attacked and responded to us, we picked up a little more momentum."

Hamilton said that former Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormic, the leading advocate for the embattled justices, made a series of blunders that played right into his opponents' hands.  McCormic provided Iowa for Freedom with ammunition in the form of quotes like "There is no such thing as an activist judge" - a line that was featured prominently in the anti-retention groups television ads. “Our opponents turned out to be our most important allies," Hamilton said.

But it was still an uphill battle for the upstart organization. To help gain support, Hamilton decided to bring on former Iowa Republican Party executive director Chuck Laudner as campaign manager. Laudner's extensive ties to the GOP establishment would prove essential in broadening Iowa for Justice's base of support.

Momentum began to build and Lane asked Alice Patterson to organize the 647 Iowa pastors who had participated in the Iowa Renewal Project events since the fall of 2006 featuring Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, David Barton, Bob McEwen and others. Together, the anti-retention effort focused their efforts on the early voting period in late September.

Patterson, and Steve Scheffler’s Iowa Christian Alliance, teamed up to distribute more than 200,000 voter guides to pastors across the state. Before it ended the coalition's volunteer phone banks had placed over 20,000 get-out-the-vote phone calls. Volunteers distributed more than 25,000 flyers in one day at the Iowa state fair, and hundreds of thousands more walking door to door.

Supporters began to request yard signs through Iowa for Freedom's website, but when they couldn't keep up with demand; individuals and groups began printing their own to fill in the gap.

A handful of individual pastors even began to take initiative on their own to help the cause. Jeff Mullen, senior pastor of Point of Grace Church in Waukee, had never been involved in politics but was motivated to create a website that provided resources and information for other pastors who shared his frustration with the high court.

Other national organizations began to lend a hand, too. The National Association for Marriage offered to pay for radio and television ads.  Within days, the team had developed scripts and began pounding the airwaves for the final three weeks of the early voting period.

By the end of September, the coalition's efforts were paying off. Ten days before the November 2 election, Lane commissioned a poll that showed that the race was dead even.

The pro-retention forces were caught off-guard and scrambled to respond. But most of their efforts backfired, Lane said, including their most basic efforts to educate the electorate about the retention process.

"It actually made our job much easier," Lane said. "Now we just had to explain to people why they should vote no, and didn't have to worry about explaining the process of how they do it." Pro-retention supporters were frustrated, but lacked the infrastructure and planning necessary to channel it into something productive. "At one point, the guy who worked at the mailbox store where we collected our mail was getting yelled at by pro-retention supporters," Hamilton said. "They thought he was running our campaign. They were mad, and there was just no one telling them how they could be productive."

At the end of the day, Chuck Laudner, the campaign manager, says the election came down to two key issues.

"The justices believed that an independent judiciary meant being independent from the people, instead of being independent from the other branches of government as our constitution intended," he said.   "It was the kind of arrogance that people across the country are sick of hearing from their government officials."And because they failed to recognize the electorate's mood, they failed to see the possibility for defeat until it was too late.

"David Lane recognized the opportunity early on, and we were able to build a winning coalition around that vision," he says.


Iowa voters sent a clear message that will resonate across our nation's judicial systems.  It is a warning to all of those who sit upon the bench that judicial overreach will no longer be tolerated and those who continue to ignore the will of  the American people may also be facing a fast and certain fall.

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Comments (9)add comment
written by ElHombre , November 23, 2010

Typical conservatives. Can't stand the thought of what other people do with their own lives, so they demand that the gov't intrude into other people's lives on behalf of their particular religious beliefs.

I look forward to their resumed cries of how we're sliding toward Sharia law and somehow totally missing the hypocrisy.

written by VS , November 24, 2010

Thank goodness for groups like this who will spearhead the movement to wake America up - to what is happening. Courts do NOT make law...and I am thankful the voters of Iowa did the right thing to remind the judges of that.

written by John Stone , November 24, 2010

Excellent article! I'll use it when I contact the IRS to report church non profits engaging in political work--"atempting to influence legislation. . or intervene(ing) in any politicala campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office." Sorry, you can't do what those "pastors" did. It is against the law.

written by rufuslevin , November 24, 2010

Former practicing lawyers who become Judges too often fall into "robeitus"...the belief that their opinions are God like in wisdom, and anyone not in synch is merely stupid and needs to be shut up.

written by 5thDistrictConservative , November 24, 2010

John Stone,
This would be a great time to do exactly that. The church would like nothing better than an opportunity to be in front of the Supreme Court to challenge the right of the government to keep conservative Christians silenced while your buds, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, et al, have been doing precisely the same thing for decades with no repurcussions.

written by Paul Perry , November 24, 2010

If you report all non-profits left and right, you may be surprised at the effects,but those regs and laws need to cut both ways if they are to exist.

written by Tracy , November 24, 2010

Comrade John , there has never been a church to loose it's exempt status because of what was said from behind the pulpit. I urge you to spend much time filing your complaints.

written by Mary Waterton , December 17, 2010

The problem is our courts. This is a democratic republic and not a judicial oligarchy. We need to clean out the rat's nest of liberal democrat activist judges in the court system rather than let them restructure society in any perverse manner they want. Many state constitutions give their citizens the right to elect their judges and to remove those that are out of the norm. Great strides toward a rational system of justice would be made if states like California amended their state constitution to give voters the same right.

written by Brian Dowd , February 22, 2011

The specific problem is the belief that there is a "living Constitution," which is a dangerous idea that allows any judge to put his or her notions of what is good into a constitutional ruling. Why even bother with a written document when current ideas can be inserted as a constitutional principle, when the principle was never ratified by the people at the founding or by amendment?

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