Contact: Sandy Adkins
Communications Specialist
National Center for State Courts
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Iowa legislature threatens to oust four Supreme Court justices

More than a dozen states have addressed judicial impeachment in past six years

Williamsburg, Va. (Dec. 30, 2010) — Four members of the seven-justice Iowa Supreme Court are being targeted for impeachment proceedings by the state's legislature, following the ouster of the other three justices by voters in the November 2010 elections. Legislators introducing the impeachment proceedings are basing their actions on the high-court's unanimous 2009 decision to approve same-sex marriage, and argue that because voters ousted the three justices who were up for retention election, the remaining four justices should be removed from the bench as well.

The four justices of the Iowa Supreme Court are not alone in facing legislative impeachment efforts in 2011. In Oklahoma, District Court Judge Thomas Bartheld is the target of legislative impeachment efforts for the second time because he accepted a plea deal, which was approved by the prosecution, defense, and the victim's parents, in a child molestation case. Judge Bartheld's removal — on the same grounds, for the same decision — was sought in 2010, but Oklahoma H.R. 1065 failed to gain sufficient support to move out of committee.

Impeachment has long been a threat with which politicians have confronted the judiciary. According to research gathered by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), since 2004 at least 14 states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia — have introduced legislation that would have removed a particular judge for a controversial decision or otherwise loosened the constitutional standard for judicial impeachment. 

In three additional states — Georgia, Missouri, and Ohio — politicians threatened to, but stopped short of, introducing legislation to impeach a judge.

Following are some recent examples of failed judicial-removal efforts in the U.S.:

  • In 2010, the Arizona legislature considered legislation to prohibit the use or citation by judges of religious sectarian law or foreign law, and declared violation by any state judge to be an impeachable offense.
  • In 2010, legislation was introduced in Iowa that would have prohibited judges from using "judicial precedent, case law, penumbras, or international law as a basis for rulings." Violation of the act was grounds for impeachment. It also prohibited the courts from reviewing the act, as doing so also was grounds for impeachment.
  • In 2009, legislation introduced in Minnesota would have replaced that state's Board of Judicial Standards with a body of randomly selected citizens with the power to review judicial decisions and remove judges in cases the board overturned.
  • In 2006, voters in South Dakota rejected a constitutional amendment known as "JAIL 4 Judges" that would have stripped judges of their decisional immunity.
  • In 2005, in legislation similar to that pending in Iowa, the Massachusetts House of Representatives considered bills to remove four of that state's high-court judges for their ruling on a same-sex marriage case.

Details regarding the individual judicial-removal efforts are outlined in a special edition of Gavel to Gavel, NCSC's newsletter that tracks legislation affecting the courts.

 

The NCSC Backgrounder is designed to provide the media with statistics and facts related to current issues of interest.

The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation's state courts.