Editorial: Don't tamper with the separation of powers


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On Monday, conservative members of the Iowa House of Representatives filed an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill that would slash the pay of the Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009.

The amendment, filed by Reps. Dwayne Alons, R-Hull, Tom Shaw, R-Laurens, and Larry Sheets, R-Moulton, would reduce the pay of the four Iowa Supreme Court justices who have been on the court since April 3, 2009 — the date of the same-sex marriage decision Varnum v. Brien — to equal the salary of a state legislator. Under the amendment, the pay cut would last until after Iowa ratifies a Constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage or the justice resigns.

In 2012, Shaw and the rest of his Iowa House cohorts made $25,000 in salary. Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins made $163,200 in salary. This wide disparity in pay is due in large part to the fact that in Iowa, Supreme Court justice is a full-time job and legislator is not.

Under this amendment, Wiggins, one of the four remaining judges who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, could expect to take an 85 percent pay cut.

The bill’s conservative sponsors are out for revenge against what they believe to have been judicial overreach in 2009; the court, they say, set the state’s law on same-sex marriage independently of the legislature.

But this blatant, disturbing attempt to punish Iowa’s progressive judges for their 2009 decision is a far greater affront to the separation of powers than the alleged “judicial activism” of the court.

This, of course, is not the first grasp at political retribution from conservatives looking to punish the court. In 2010, three Iowa Supreme Court were ousted in a judicial-retention election thanks to organized opposition to their support for same-sex marriage. In 2012, Wiggins overcame similar opposition to retain his spot on the court.

The Editorial Board has, in the past, lamented the politicization of the judiciary in a system that requires neutral interpretation of the law. We bristled during each of the campaigns to oust the judges that ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in the retention elections of 2010 and 2012.

We bristle again at this attempt by those in the Legislature to tamper with the separation of powers established in the Constitution they claim to be protecting.

The Iowa Supreme Court has a long history of being ahead of the curve on civil rights. The court granted African-Americans equal access to the state’s schools and public services in the 1800s and outlawed private segregation in 1949.

But it is not the case that Iowa has a corresponding history of judicial activism. In fact, much of this is likely due to the unusual specificity of Iowa’s constitution with regard to its establishment of individual rights and equal protection under the law. It begins as follows.

“All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights — among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.’

And continuing,

“All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation; the General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

The justices who ruled in favor of same-sex marriage were not liberal activists, as their opponents suggest, they were simply justices upholding the Iowa Constitution and the progressive history of the Iowa court.

For their services, some conservative members of the Iowa House who evidently have a deficient sense of irony would like to cut their pay by bastardizing the Constitution.

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