A majority of states have retention votes. Until recently, these votes have gotten little to no attention by the press let alone discussion around the kitchen table. Then, in 2010, one powerful Christian political group in Iowa made targeting so-called “activist” judges part of its mission.
The Family Leader (TFL) headed by Bob Vander Plaats, whose name has recently been floated as a possible contenderfor the Republican nomination for Senate, launched an aggressive and ultimately successful campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court Justices. After these three judges ruled in favor of marriage equality, making Iowa one of the first states to allow same-sex couples to marry in the state, Vander Plaats and TFL mustered the anti-gay marriage troops.
Money poured in from The National Organization for Marriage, The Alliance Defense Fund, The Family Research Council and the American Family Association. Well north of $500,000 was dumped into Iowafor the cause. The highlight of the campaign was a 20-stop bus tour coordinated by TFL that drew perennial right-wing religious favorites like Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Tony Perkins and Rick Santorum. Each stop bashed gay marriage, warning Iowans that it was a slippery slope toward incest, polygamy and man-on-dog love.
It worked. Not only did the judges lose their jobs, Vander Plaats and TFL drove their right-wing base and single-issue voters to the polls. This momentum helped TFL endorsed presidential candidate Rick Santorum to narrowly (and belatedly) win the Iowa caucus.
Now, Vander Plaats and The Family Leader are at it again. This time the target is Polk County District Court Judge Karen Romano. Her crime? Granting an injunction against a law that would end telemed abortion in Iowa.
Telemed services allow women, typically in rural areas away from any clinic, access to abortion care services they would otherwise not have. A doctor “meets” a woman via webcam then prescribes medication to induce a chemical abortion. Then, under the in-person supervision of a trained medical professional the woman takes the pill.
The Family Leader and Vander Plaats have aggressively jumped in this fight as well. Just days after Romano’s Nov. 5 ruling, a post went up on TFL’s website. Under the title “Remember the Romano” TFL supposes Judge Romano didn’t “learn a lesson” from the Supreme Court vote stating “The FAMiLY LEADER [sic] encourages Iowans to remember Judge Karen Romano’s activism when she is up for retention in November 2016.”
The punitive model created by The Family Leader targeting justices can be replicated in other states. As model legislation (like “fetal pain” bills or 20 week abortion bans) is floated in one state to assess its feasibility in another, so is judicial retention. With hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion increasingly make their way to state courts Americans can expect more and more “bus tours” by Christian-political groups designed to drive the base to the polls and bring big money to their causes.