EDITORIAL: A blow to judicial tyranny

Iowans dispose of activists on the state Supreme Court

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This week’s elections weren’t just about the economy. Concerned about judicial tyranny, Iowans booted all three of the state Supreme Court justices who appeared on Tuesday’s ballot - the first high court justices to be defeated since 1962, when Iowans created a system of voting on whether or not judges should be retained.

The Hawkeye State’s judicial elections rarely generate much controversy or interest, with most judges generally enjoying approval levels of around 75 percent. That changed with the high court’s unanimous 2009 decision discovering a right to homosexual “marriage” in the state constitution - a view that would have shocked those who drafted the document long before homosexuality was the subject of polite conversation, let alone political debate.

Most of the voters repudiating those justices oppose homosexual marriage, but the rebuke did not come just from traditional conservatives. In a state where polls show residents evenly divided on the issue, opponents of homosexual marriage were joined by political moderates and even supporters of homosexual marriage who understand there is a more fundamental issue at stake than who can marry whom. For those voters, the uncharacteristic ousters appear to have been driven by a distaste for judges who attempt to rewrite the law. In our system of divided government, members of the judicial branch have a very specific duty to interpret the fine points of constitutional law and to apply the meaning of more mundane legislation to specific cases. When judges step outside this role and act as robed political leaders, they don’t just become controversial, they become a threat to our political system based on the separation of powers.

That fact should not be lost on judges across the country who are tempted to substitute their personal policy views for the disinterested application of the law. Judges should realize that even people who agree with their views want judges to keep those views to themselves.

It also is a warning to Republicans. Two of the three judges who now will spend more time with their families were appointed to the bench by then-Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican. The same voters who rejected the justices Tuesday decided on the same ballot to return Mr. Branstad to the governor’s mansion. Appointing judges who understand their starkly limited role is among the most critical duties of governors and the president. Republicans only have themselves to blame if the chief executives they select do not understand this fact.

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