DES MOINES - Iowans voted to retain state Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins on Tuesday, a defeat for conservatives who sought to remove him for joining the landmark decision that legalized gay marriage in 2009.
Liberal groups, gay rights activists and trial lawyers hailed the vote as an affirmation of the Iowa Supreme Court's long history of supporting equal rights and judicial independence. They said the vote reflected changing attitudes in which more people support same-sex marriage and a bigger push by the state's legal establishment, the Iowa State Bar Association, to educate voters about the significance of retaining Wiggins.
"This is a great day for rule of law in Iowa and Iowa voters have wisely rejected politics and intimidation in our court system," said Guy Cook, president-elect of the bar association. "Justice Wiggins is an intelligent, hard-working and fair man. It's good to know that he hasn't been fired for simply doing his job."
With 88 percent of Iowa precincts reporting, more than 54 percent of voters said Wiggins should remain on the bench. Wiggins, 63, needed only a simple majority to win another eight-year term.
The Family Leader, the social conservative group that led the anti-Wiggins campaign, conceded defeat late Tuesday. Spokeswoman Julie Summa noted the race was close and many Iowa residents signaled they remained opposed to the ruling.
"That's quite a few Iowans that believe Justice Wiggins stepped outside his bounds," she said. "This time around, we were competing with the presidential election, all of the other congressional races, there was a lot of noise out there that competed with our message. And the other side was more organized this time than last time around. We knew it would be an uphill battle."
With the victory, Wiggins avoids the fate of three of his colleagues who joined the unanimous ruling and were voted off the bench when they faced voters in 2010. The vote to remove those justices was unprecedented since Iowa adopted a merit-based selection and retention system for judges in 1962. It sparked an outcry among lawyers, who feared judges would be afraid to make unpopular rulings in the future.
Social conservative groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads, a statewide bus tour, and fliers attacking Wiggins for what they called making law from the bench. They also led the successful effort in 2010, which faced little pushback from supporters of the ruling.
But this time, voter attitudes were markedly different. Several interviewed across the state, including many Republicans, said they supported gay marriage and voted to retain Wiggins as a result.
"I think that man is an awesome judge," said 34-year-old Sylvia Fanelli, a Republican from West Des Moines. "He did the right thing voting for marriage equality in this country."
Marty Bunge, 54, a studio photographer from Williamsburg, said he voted for Wiggins and cited a major argument stressed by the justice's supporters. "I don't think politics has any place in the judicial system and I think the recall attempt was nothing but politics," said Bunge, a Republican.
But Logan Potter, 18, a Drake University student, said he voted against Wiggins because the court's decision was an overreach that was made without enough public input.
Wiggins joined six colleagues in unanimously declaring that a state law banning gay marriage violated the equal-protection clause of Iowa's constitution, making Iowa the first Midwestern state to legalize gay marriage. More than 4,500 gay couples have since wed in the state.
The backlash from conservatives was fierce. Conservatives spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit in 2010, and about 55 percent of Iowa voters agreed to remove them from office.
This time, they also attacked Wiggins as an underperforming justice. They noted he received a satisfactory but relatively poor performance review from attorneys who responded to a Bar Association survey, which found 63 percent believed he should be retained, the second lowest rating of more than 70 judges on the ballot.
Wiggins was appointed in 2003 by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. He honored Iowa's long tradition in which justices do not raise money or actively campaign but appeared at schools, in churches and civic groups to talk about the court's history of supporting equal rights dating back to rulings against slavery and segregation and for women's rights in the 1800s - decades before the country reached consensus on those positions.
State Supreme Court justices must stand for retention the first year after they are appointed and then every eight years. They must receive a simple majority vote to stay in office.
Three other justices appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad last year to replace those ousted in 2010 easily won retention.