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September 16th, 2010

Your Rights: Use Em or Lose Em

By Bob Haus

Out of the myriad of issues that voters will consider on the ballot this year, two have the potential to be highly emotional, completely misrepresented, and thus lost in the overall debate. These issues are the Constitutional Convention question and the Judicial Retention issue.

The Iowa Constitutional Convention

The right of the people to amend the Iowa Constitution is a well-established right, and there are two methods for the exercise of that right. First, a majority in both the Iowa House and Senate may pass a proposed amendment. The majorities must pass the same language in two consecutive General Assemblies, then the proposed amendment moves to the ballot. This is the most common method by which to amend state constitutions. Voters have the right to amend the Constitution through the election process of their State Representatives and State Senators every two years.

Voters also have an additional method to amend the Iowa Constitution. The basis for this method of amendment can be found in Article X, Section 3 of the Iowa Constitution. Once every ten years, we are to be presented on the ballot with a rather simple question: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?” This second method to amend the Constitution may be used once every ten years. It is a more direct method to amend, and one that does not rely on the Legislature.

Written four years before the U.S. Civil War in 1857, the Iowa State Constitution has been amended 27 times, most recently in 2008 when Iowa voters approved an amendment to remove an archaic term from the Constitution, the word “idiot.” This year, Iowa voters will have the opportunity to approve an amendment that would set aside a portion of a future sales tax increase for natural resource projects. We will also be presented with our decennial question regarding the Constitutional Convention.

For more information on the Constitutional Convention issue, please go to There, you can find some great resources, background, and straightforward information on the issue.

Judicial Retention

Also on the ballot every two years is the issue of retention of judges. In 1962, Iowa voters approved a constitutional amendment (see above) that replaced election of judge with a system that allowed for “merit” selection and retention elections. The merit selection process involves input from the Iowa State Bar Association with the ultimate decision being made by the Governor. After serving his or her term on the bench, a judge then comes before the voters for a “retention election.” If a judge who comes up for retention election receives a simple majority of “yes” votes, he or she will serve another term. If that judge receives a simple majority of “no” votes, he or she is removed from the bench at the end of the year. The opening is thereafter filled with the merit selection process. Iowa’s system is thus a tight, two-step process: merit selection and retention election.

These issues have a very important common thread: voters ultimately have a safety valve, a method of recourse to right the ship of state. Amending the Constitution is not easy…nor should it be. Judges should not be elected, and they are not in Iowa. But there are processes to amend the Constitution as well as remove judges from the bench.

These well-designed processes lay ultimate authority with the voters of Iowa. They also convey the ultimate responsibility to exercise that authority.

These issues, and especially the judicial retention issue, have become flash points in the 2010 election. The judicial retention issue is receiving attention due to the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. General frustration with the gridlock and tone-deafness of state government is fueling the interest in a constitutional convention.

Arguments will be constructed on both sides of these issues, and most I’ve seen to date completely miss the real, underlying issue. In the judicial retention issue, no less famous a person than former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has come to opine that Iowa should not “elect its judges.” Nothing could be further from the truth, and someone as astute as O’Connor should know it. The exercise of the retention ballot is a legal, proper, constitutional and ethical way of rendering a public opinion on a judge. If a judge is removed via retention ballot, then that position is filled with the merit selection process. There is no “election”, period. The judicial retention ballot is merely the exercise of the people’s right in a two-step process.

Regarding the Constitutional Convention question, opponents argue that mayhem will be created if the people are allowed to amend the Constitution. This argument is not only false, it’s also offensive. It assumes that voters in Iowa are uneducated dolts, “idiots” if you will, who can’t discern between ridiculous issues that do not have popular support, and those that enjoy such support. On any given day, I put my faith in the voters of this state to make some pretty informed decisions. The right to call a constitutional convention is the exercise of the voter’s rights in another two-step process.

But the real issue is this: as voters of this great State of Iowa, we have been given rights. We need to use them. If we don’t use them, we will lose them. The First and Second Amendments to the US Constitution are vibrant because we use them. We have a vocal press that exercises the First Amendment. We have tens of millions of average citizens like me that exercise the Second Amendment. Without use, and without being defended, these rights would ultimately fade away and be diminished.

I don’t care what position you take on any given judge. I don’t really care what your position is on gay marriage. What I do care about is that you have been given rights, and you need to exercise them. Opponents of either the judicial retention ballot or the constitutional convention will argue that if YOU exercise YOUR rights, YOU will therefore be limiting someone else’s rights.

What they don’t tell you is this: by constructing their arguments, and getting you to not vote on the retention ballot or the constitutional convention question, they have just taken away a prized right from you. In other words, their right is more important than your right. But they really aren’t honest enough to tell you that.

If you don’t vote on either or both of these issues, you will have allowed them to take away YOUR rights.

Vote on both. Exercise your rights. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

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About the Author

Bob Haus
Robert Haus is a Des Moines based advertising and communications consultant. Born and raised in Iowa, Bob is a proud graduate of both Iowa State University and the University of Iowa College of Law, which makes him a confirmed CyHawk fan. A former farm boy, and recovered lawyer, Bob has spent the last 20 years working at all levels of state and federal politics. He has worked for and advised Republican candidates for President, US Senate, US House, statewide office, and the Iowa Legislature. You can follow him at Bob's personal blog is

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