Watchdog Blog

Herb Strentz: Some Perspective on the Iowa Court’s Gay Marriage Ruling

Posted at 6:31 pm, April 4th, 2009
Herb Strentz Mug

Des Moines–As readers probably know, the seven-member Iowa Supreme Court on Friday found unconstitutional a 1998 state law that defined marriage as a union of man and woman. The unanimous decision said that law violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

Given that the decision will have social and political ramifications for years to come, here are a few points of perspective — feel free to drop them into conversations or to keep in mind as you mull over what happened out here in the heartland.

A good discussion of the opinion is found in a Saturday Des Moines Register editorial, and the 69-page decision is available on the Supreme Court’s Web site. If you want to skip to the core of the decision — the quotable stuff for news stories, etc. — begin at about page 56.

Let’s limit the perspectives to five points:

1. The Iowa news coverage of the decision was good, framing the issue in constitutional terms, not in terms of what the justices thought about gay marriage. The coverage was aided by the fact that the court on Thursday gave a heads-up that the decision was coming down on Friday. Generally speaking, in recent years, the Iowa Supreme Court has been more open and transparent in providing access to the workings of the state judiciary than either the governor’s office or the legislature has been in letting people know what’s up.

2. The decision, Varnum v. Brien, upheld a 2007 Polk County — Des Moines and its environs — ruling by District Judge Robert Hanson. To a fair-minded reader, the decisions were no-brainers, articulating how the 1998 legislation really addressed no significant state interest: “…stereotype and prejudice or some other unarticulated reason, could be present to explain the real objects of the statute,” the Justices said.

3. The only remedy to those unhappy with the decision would be a constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court all but ruled out a legislative remedy: “A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution.” Given the nature of the amendment processes in Iowa, the earliest any change could be enacted would be 2011 or 2012.

4. 2012, of course, is a caucus and presidential election year and we have the 2010 gubernatorial election coming up. Those who read election tea leaves no doubt will put the Court decision into the mix. But even before the decision, Iowa Democrats — who tend to be less opposed to same-sex marriages — were getting themselves in trouble. Despite the gains in the 2008 election, Iowa Democrats have already pretty much squandered their riches. The legislature and the Democratic governor, Chet Culver, are often at odds, and state level politics is more a game of bumper cars than efficient or orchestrated decision making. So the Democrats are likely to lose some of their 32-18 advantage in the Iowa Senate, and the House, 56-44. Culver is perceived as maybe being a one-term governor, who has lost support among Democrats thanks in part to vindictiveness against party rivals. At this stage neither 2010 nor 2012 looks good for Iowa Democrats. Their best, and likely, hope is that Iowa Republicans, dominated by the far, far right and evangelicals posing as politicos, will field candidates that force people to vote for Democrats.

5. Finally, much of the outcry against the Supreme Court decision is expressed in terms of majority rule or what the people want, ignoring the point that constitutional rights are designed to protect minority groups from having their rights trampled upon. The court decision is in keeping with an Iowa Supreme Court history of having recognized rights of African Americans and women decades before federal courts or Congress saw the light. Those 19th century decisions now have a 21st century counterpart.

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.