Why Should YOU Care About Pay Raises for Iowa Judges?

April 11, 2021

We’ll answer that question with another question: Wouldn’t you want to know that the Iowa judge you might stand before someday is the best our legal community has to offer?

Let’s say your business is on the line in a contract dispute, for example. Or your financial security depends on the fair resolution of a complicated divorce. Perhaps you were badly injured by a defective product and are asking an Iowa judge to hold a major corporate wrongdoer accountable. Maybe you’ve been unjustly accused of a crime and are depending on a judge to protect your very freedom.

Iowa’s district court judges handle thousands of cases like these every year. Even if you never actually stand before a judge, the Iowa Supreme Court has the final word on issues that affect everyone, including immigration, the death penalty, sex discrimination, reproductive rights, partisan gerrymandering, and the integrity of our elections, just to list a few.

We bring this matter to your attention following a recent guest op-ed for the Des Moines Register by Bob Teig, a former federal prosecutor, who says Iowa judges haven’t made a good case for the 3% pay raise requested by Iowa’s judicial branch in its latest budget proposal. Jeff Schnurr, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, returned volley a few days later with a point-by-point rebuttal of Teig’s essay under the banner headline: Iowa Judges’ Achievements Are Strong Evidence for Higher Pay.

Both authors present well-written arguments bursting with facts and figures about past pay and compensation, caseloads before and after the pandemic, and the number of applicants interested in open seats. However, one number in particular stood out to us – 37.

Mr. Schnurr reports that Iowa ranks 37th in the nation for district court judge salaries, according to the National Center for State Courts. With only three pay raises in the past 10 years, judicial salaries actually decreased from 2010 to 2019 when accounting for inflation. Meanwhile, the number of applicants for district court vacancies has dropped by 56% on average from 2003 to 2020, the number of private practice attorneys applying has fallen almost 50% from 2009 to 2020.

Anyone who has tried to fill a key position in any organization knows that the more applicants you have for the job, the more likely your search will generate outstanding candidates. As we have written here in the past, Iowans can be proud of the exceptional men and women who now serve as judges in our courts. With all that is at stake here, a 3% investment in judicial salaries will continue to yield big returns with highly qualified judges dedicated to fair and impartial courts for all Iowans.

The Team at Justice Not Politics

Dark Money Groups Are “The Crocodile in the Bathtub” of Judicial Elections, Fair Courts

March 29, 2021

When Deep Throat told Bob Woodward to “Just follow the money” in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men as the surest path to uncovering corruption at the White House, he could just as well have been talking about state supreme court elections.

More than a half-billion dollars has been spent over the past 20 years by groups hell-bent on electing or defeating judges that impact their narrow special interests. Thanks to loopholes in state and federal laws – and more recently the cloak of secrecy provided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – it is difficult if not impossible for the public to “follow the money” and uncover the funders trying to influence future court decisions.

This is a BIG problem, folks. As pointed out by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, the leading watchdog in the fight to expose the big spenders in judicial elections, “state supreme courts sit atop judicial systems that hear 95% of all cases filed in the United States.” In just the past few years, state supreme courts had the final word on several major issues, including immigration, the death penalty, sex discrimination, reproductive rights, partisan gerrymandering, and the integrity of our elections.

These decisions affect the rights of workers, access to health care, and product liability. That’s why these powerful interests want to get involved – they have a lot at stake. Spending relatively small amounts of money to change the outcome of a judicial race is a good investment when a single vote can change a major ruling, potentially adding millions or billions to a company’s bottom line. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that campaign contributions in a state supreme court race, particularly big spending by a single corporate interest, can violate due process rights.

And while most Americans won’t notice, it would be naive to think those spending millions of dollars on state judicial campaigns and retention elections are not succeeding in their dark-money mission to influence our courts – “institutions that are constitutionally obligated to provide equal justice regardless of wealth, status, or political connections,” states the Brennan Center.

The Judicial Crisis Network, A Funder Case History

Let’s take a look at how this works (or more aptly, doesn’t work) for justice in America. In 2017-18, a group created by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) called the Judicial Fairness Initiative (JFI) topped all spenders in state judicial races, plunking down $4.1 million to sway supreme court elections in three states. This is a tiny fraction of the RSLC’s total campaign giving, but it can have a huge impact in a state supreme court election.

The conservative Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) funded the RSLC’s 2017-18 influence campaign with a $3.6 million contribution. JCN also gave $255,000 to the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, a group that supported a Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate with television and radio ads. And JCN spent $500,000 directly to unseat an Arkansas Supreme Court justice.

Thanks to the Brennan Center’s biannual Politics in Judicial Elections series, we know where all this JCN money was spent but we have no idea where it originated. Like eight of the top 10 interest group spenders tracked during the 2017-18 election cycle, JCN does not disclose its donors. According to a 2018 tax filing, JCN received $17 million from “Donor A,” likely the Wellspring Committee, a group notorious for networking millions from deep-pocket donors and other dark money groups into judicial races.

The Crocodile in the Bathtub

Most of the millions flowing into judicial races are spent on the favorite tool for character assassination in political campaigns, extremely negative and twisted advertising. Often these ads are designed to create fear among voters by pillorying judges for a decision in a criminal case, especially those involving violence against children. Crime, however, is rarely the motivating issue for the national funding groups or the state-based special interest groups they support, the Foot Soldiers. Scratch the surface and you’ll often find well-funded business interests and ideological groups that work together to exert influence and sway state judiciaries toward their preferred outcomes.

These attack-dog tactics intimidate sitting judges to the point that it can impact their decisions, especially in criminal cases. Brennan Center researchers cite studies that show judges issued longer sentences and were less likely to rule in favor of criminal defendants as elections heat up. California Supreme Court Justice Otto Kaus described looming elections as “a crocodile in your bathtub. You keep wondering whether you’re letting yourself be influenced, and you do not know.”

Iowa’s merit-based system for nominating candidates to our state courts helps insulate us from the worst effects of this flood of special interest influence common to judicial campaigns, but our retention elections are still vulnerable to dark money agendas. We learned this the hard way in 2010 when extreme-right religious groups successfully ousted three accomplished Supreme Court justices under the false flag “Iowans for Freedom.” Led by Bob Vander Plaats, President of The Family Leader, the group raised and spent nearly a million dollars on deceptive advertising, most of it money from groups outside of Iowa.

This is why our work is so important. Iowans must remain vigilant to guarantee equal justice as our current campaign finance systems are not sufficient. Across the country, big money interests have been able to tilt justice in their own favor. And it can happen again here, too. Our best line of defense against this manipulation by the foot soldiers and their funders is to support the watchdogs that are fighting to maintain fair and impartial courts. Next time, we will take a look at the heroes in our Justice at Stake series, the intellectuals, the detectives, and the citizens’ brigade.

Yours for Fair Courts,
Justice Not Politics

Judicial “Foot Soldiers” to the Wealthy and Powerful Remake Courts for Their Own Narrow Interests

March 15, 2021

The first chapter in our “Justice at Stake” series set the table for our discussion of the many special interest groups dedicated to shaping our state and federal courts. You met the culprits – the big money funders, the partisan hacks, and the foot soldiers to the wealthy and powerful. We also introduced the heroes, those trying to push back against a rising tide of attacks on the integrity of our courts: the intellectuals, the detectives, and the citizens’ brigade.

Today we would like to turn your attention to the foot soldiers. These are the state-based groups that often spring up just a few months before a judicial election, sporting all-American names like Iowans for Freedom, Ohioans for a Healthy Economy, or For the Sake of the Kids. Look behind the apple-pie facades and you’ll often find well-funded business and conservative groups that work together to influence the makeup of elected state judiciaries and, therefore, the direction of state law. Many of these shadowy groups are notorious for refusing to disclose their funding sources and are often responsible for twisted TV attack ads in judicial elections.

States with elected judiciaries witnessed the work for these groups beginning in 2000. But in 2010, Iowa was one of the first states in the nation to be on the receiving end of a foot soldier campaign in judicial retention elections when extreme-right religious groups successfully ousted three accomplished Supreme Court justices under the false flag “Iowans for Freedom.” Led by Bob Vander Plaats, President of The Family Leader, the group raised and spent nearly a million dollars on deceptive advertising, most of it money from groups outside of Iowa.

Despite several subsequent attempts over the past 10 years by Vander Plaats and his foot soldiers to replicate their 2010 manipulation, Iowans have been much the wiser … so far. But it would be a serious miscalculation to think our Iowa courts won’t again come under attack by big money foot soldiers as these groups continue their efforts in states throughout the nation. According to a 2019 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan policy institute, more than a half billion dollars has been spent on state judicial campaigns and retention elections since 2000.

Iowans living on the eastern edge of the state had a front-row seat this past November to what could easily be a “coming attraction” to Iowa in future elections. Across the border in Illinois, a group calling itself Citizens for Judicial Fairness was anything but fair in spending $2.2 million on TV ads attacking state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride. Despite winning more than 55% of the vote, Kilbride did not reach the magic 60% threshold for retention in Illinois and became the first Supreme Court justice to lose a retention election in the state’s history.

Of course there are foot soldier groups supporting left-leaning interests, as well. At the state level, these groups have tended to be less prominent and formed as a reaction to conservative and business groups, but at the national level, they remain heavily interested in federal courts.

Regardless, our concerns are the same: We reject any attempt to further politicize our courts, whether from the left or right, because we believe advocating for fair and impartial courts does not mean you always get the policy outcomes that you want. It means that judges will follow the law and do what it requires in each case. The alternative – justices beholden to ideological or financial interests – will obliterate the bedrock on which our judicial system is built.

Next time, a look behind the curtain at those who issue the marching orders to the foot soldiers – the big money funders.

Your Iowa Citizens Brigade for Fair Courts,
Justice Not Politics

Iowa Courts Reopen with “Serving Safely” Public Service Message for Citizen Jurors

February 22, 2021

Iowa courts are reassuring potential jurors that safety measures are in place for resumption of trials. Additional $9 million requested to help clear case backlog.

“Even in a global pandemic, the wheels of justice cannot stop turning.”

With that sentiment, former KCCI-TV anchor Kevin Cooney urges Iowans to answer the call if asked to serve on a jury in new video public service announcements released by the Iowa Judicial Branch with the resumption of jury trials on Feb. 1.

Iowa courts are reassuring potential jurors that safety measures are in place for resumption of trials. Additional $9 million requested to help clear case backlog.

“As stated in the PSA, ‘the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers is the bedrock of Iowa’s judicial system and is essential to our democracy,’” Iowa Supreme Court Justice Matthew McDermott, co-chair of the Jumpstart Jury Trials Task Force, said. “The videos explain to potential jurors the important balance of ensuring the right to a fair trial and protecting the health and safety of all the participants in the trial.”

Trials were first put on hold in March 2020 during the onset of the pandemic, resumed in September only to be paused again in November as infections surged. The PSA directs viewers to a resource page and longer video that outlines the many measures taken by the court to keep jurors, defendants, and court officers safe.

Based on the reports we’re hearing, Iowans are stepping up to serve. Extensive safeguards are in place throughout the process from the time a summons is received through check-in, jury selection, and the trial. A potential juror can also request a one-year deferral based on concerns about COVID.

“To our knowledge there were no infections connected with the trials that took place last fall and we believe that is a testament to the safeguards we have in place,” Justice McDermott reported.

The restart is long overdue for too many Iowans and their families who have had their lives put on hold while waiting for the resumption of jury trials. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the old English saying goes, and this has been a particularly frustrating and dangerous experience for those incarcerated while waiting for their day in court. Several thousand inmates and hundreds of correctional officers have been infected with the coronavirus, 18 inmates have died.

Iowans are doing their job to get the courts moving again, so now the Governor and legislative leaders must do the same and approve the court’s budget request for an additional $9 million to cover COVID-19 expenditures and tackle the significant backlog in cases. It’s time to get the wheels of justice moving once again for all Iowans.

The Justice Not Politics Team

Special Interest Groups Promote Partisan Agendas In Battle to Politicize Courts

February 11, 2021

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Folk wisdom that has never been more true when tracking special interest groups who work to influence our courts. When you scan the titles, you’ll likely find them pretty tame, but once you crack the spine, you’ll discover a lot of content about politicizing our courts.

“Best sellers” on the national level include groups like the Judicial Crisis Network, the Judicial Fairness Initiative, and Demand Justice, or state-level groups like Ohioans for a Healthy Economy, For the Sake of the Kids, or North Carolina Families First. And who can forget that local “thriller” Iowa for Freedom, the “cover” used by Bob Vander Plaats and The Family Leader to funnel millions of dollars from outside far-right groups into campaigns to defeat the retention of several Iowa Supreme Court justices over the past decade.

The common denominator, regardless of what end of the political spectrum these groups represent, is the belief that we should choose and evaluate judges based on politics rather than merit and a fair-minded interpretation of the law. Many are also willing to collect and spend millions in dark money on attack ads and misinformation campaigns to achieve political and partisan outcomes. As a political operative from one group stated in a Kansas forum on judicial elections, “It’s a whole lot cheaper to buy a state supreme court justice than a state legislator, and you’re going to get a LOT more influence with a supreme court justice.”

From time to time in a new series we’ve titled Justice at Stake (a term we’ve borrowed from a now-inactive national fair courts group), we’ll examine these organizations and the intent behind the lofty-sounding titles and those who are bankrolling their efforts – especially at the state level.

And while you likely know at least a few of the stories, we hope to help distinguish the main characters — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ll guide you through the big plot points and help make sense of a burgeoning genre of big money funders, partisan players, and foot soldiers to the wealthy and powerful, alongside those trying to push back against this tide of partisan tricks: the intellectuals, the detectives, and the citizens brigade.

For those of you wondering where Justice Not Politics fits into this story, we’re happy to say that organizations like ours are working to protect courts from political influence. Generally state-based groups like JNP, Kansans for Fair Courts, Justice Not Politics Alaska and others understand and expect some decisions that our supporters might disagree with because that’s what happens when fair-minded judges follow the law. More important, we recognize that advocating for fair courts means that we can all count on impartial treatment in a courtroom no matter who is on the other side or which political party is in power.

Stay tuned. The first chapter is coming soon. We’ll introduce the partisan powerhouses … protagonists with a plan to politicize every courtroom in America.

The Justice Not Politics Team