But the question of whether he should keep his job has become one of the most fiercely contested judicial issues on the Nov. 6 ballot because of what he symbolizes in the debate over gay marriage and the role of courts.
Three years ago, Justice Wiggins and his six colleagues ruled that the state’s law banning gay marriage was unconstitutional, which made Iowa the third state to recognize same-sex unions. The decision triggered a furor among conservatives, who mounted an aggressive campaign a year later to defeat three of the justices whose terms came up for ballot review.
Now, the future of Justice Wiggins, whose term comes up this year, is sparking an even bigger battle as liberal groups and lawyers shocked by the outcome in 2010 fight back on his behalf. The race is being watched not only as barometer of the public’s changing attitude toward gay marriage but as a message for judges who might take up similar cases in the future.
“2010 was like a hand grenade into the Supreme Court chambers, and we don’t want to have that repeated,” said Des Moines lawyer Guy Cook, president-elect of the Iowa State Bar Association, which is campaigning to support Justice Wiggins.
The opposing sides have launched “Vote Yes” and “No Wiggins” campaigns and are spending heavily to get their messages out. The National Organization for Marriage provided $100,000 for an anti-Wiggins television ad this week and conservative stars Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal led a cross-state bus tour denouncing Justice Wiggins as a liberal judicial activist.
At each stop, they were trailed by a bus carrying members of the bar who defended Justice Wiggins against that accusation.
During the bus tour, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown said that defeating the justices shows that gay marriage isn’t inevitable and can’t be imposed by the courts.
“Change the course of history. Take a bold stand,” he told supporters. “Do not allow activist judges to rewrite your constitution. Hold them accountable and the world will be watching.”
Iowans did not embrace the Iowa court’s ruling when it came down following a lawsuit brought by gay couples who were denied marriage licenses. Justices up for retention in 2010 were easily defeated, receiving about 45 percent of the vote, the first judicial ousters since the state adopted a merit-selection system in 1962.
But views have changed as more than 4,500 same-sex couples have married since 2009. A Des Moines Register poll in February found that voters overwhelmingly opposed amending the constitution to ban gay marriage.
Several other factors also may help Justice Wiggins as he seeks a second eight-year term. His supporters are running a stronger campaign than the ineffective pro-retention effort in 2010. The presidential race also means the electorate will be larger and more liberal than the one that turned out for the Republican-dominated midterm election.
“It makes it more difficult,” concedes Bob Vander Plaats, whose group, the Family Leader, leads the opposition.
Justice Wiggins is formally honoring the tradition in which Iowa judges do not campaign. However, he wrote recently in The Register, “I do not want Iowa to end up like states with highly partisan courts. Iowa is better than that.”