Framing the Debate: Understanding Iowa's 2010 Judicial-Retention Election Through a Content Analysis of Letters to the Editor

Author:Tyler J. Buller
Position:J.D., The University of Iowa College of Law, 2012
Pages:1745-1786
SUMMARY

This Note explores the framing of political advocacy surrounding Iowa’s 2010 judicial-retention election through a content analysis of letters to the editor in Iowa newspapers published in the three months preceding the election. In November 2010, Iowa voters denied retention to all three Iowa Supreme Court justices on the ballot. The election took place against the backdrop of a charged debate... (see full summary)

 
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1745
Framing the Debate: Understanding
Iowa’s 2010 Judicial-Retention Election
Through a Content Analysis of Letters to
the Editor
Tyler J. Buller
ABSTRACT: This Note explores the framing of political advocacy surrounding Iowa’s
2010 judicial-retention election through a content analysis of letters to the editor in
Iowa newspapers published in the three months preceding the election. In November
2010, Iowa voters denied retention to all three Iowa Supreme Court justices on the
ballot. The election took place against the backdrop of a charged debate focused on
Varnum v. Brien—a recent Iowa Supreme Court decision invalidating Iowa’s
statutory prohibition of same-sex marriage—and an unprecedented campaign to oust
the justices on account of that decision. Because judicial-retention elections fall at the
intersection of law, public policy, and politics, this study provides insight for the
bench, the bar, advocates, and political and legal scholars as they seek to understand
the debate over same-sex marriage and Iowa’s 2010 retention election. The data
collected in this study paint a picture of the political dialogue between pro- and anti-
retention factions as it played out across Iowa newspapers’ opinion and editorial
pages, ultimately demonstrating that pro- and anti-retention advocates framed the
retention election in substantively different ways.
I. INTRODUCTION .................................................................................... 1747
II. BACKGROUND ...................................................................................... 1749
A. THE 2010 IOWA JUDICIAL-RETENTION ELECTION ............................ 1749
B. LETTERS TO THE EDITOR AS A VEHICLE FOR EXPLORING FRAMING .... 1754
III. METHODOLOGY ................................................................................... 1756
A. SAMPLE SELECTION AND DATA ACQUISITION ................................... 1756
B. CODING AND DATA COMPILATION ................................................... 1759
1. Coding for Express-Advocacy Letters vs. Issue-Based
Letters ................................................................................... 1760
J.D., The University of Iowa College of Law, 2012; B.A., Drake University, 2009. The
author thanks John Lande, Michael Nelson, and Justin Knight for thoughtful comments on
early drafts of this piece. All remaining errors and omissions belong solely to the author.
1746 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 97:1745
2. Coding for Framing ............................................................. 1762
IV. RESULTS ............................................................................................... 1762
A. EXPRESS-ADVOCACY FRAMING ......................................................... 1763
1. Pro-Retention Letters ........................................................... 1763
2. Anti-Retention Letters ......................................................... 1767
B. ISSUE-ADVOCACY FRAMING ............................................................. 1770
1. Letters Concerning Same-Sex Marriage and the Rights
of Same-Sex Couples ............................................................ 1771
2. Letters Concerning the Merit-Selection–Retention
System ................................................................................... 1773
3. Letters Concerning Civics or Historical Background ........ 1774
4. Other, Uncategorized Letters ............................................. 1775
V. ANALYSIS .............................................................................................. 1776
A. QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS: PRO- AND ANTI-RETENTION ADVOCATES
FRAMED ISSUES DIFFERENTLY .......................................................... 1776
B. QUALITATIVE ANALYSIS: PRO-RETENTION ADVOCATES AVOIDED
DISCUSSING VARNUM, WHILE ANTI-RETENTION ADVOCATES
FOCUSED ON ARGUING THAT VARNUM WAS WRONGLY DECIDED ...... 1777
C. ADVOCACY ANALYSIS: VARNUM WRONG FOR INSTITUTIONAL
REASONS WAS THE LOUDEST, MOST PERSUASIVE FRAME IN
LETTERS ........................................................................................ 1778
VI. CONCLUSION ....................................................................................... 1780
A. IMPLICATIONS FOR LEGAL SCHOLARSHIP ......................................... 1780
B. IMPLICATIONS FOR POLITICAL SCHOLARSHIP ................................... 1782
C. IMPLICATIONS FOR THE BENCH ....................................................... 1783
D. IMPLICATIONS FOR ADVOCATES ....................................................... 1784
E. IMPLICATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH .......................................... 1784
2012] FRAMING THE DEBATE 1747
I. INTRODUCTION
On November 2, 2010, Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David
Baker and Michael Streit of the Iowa Supreme Court all lost their jobs.1
Iowans, for the first time since adopting a merit-selection and retention
system in 1962, opted not to return sitting supreme court justices to the
bench following a retention election.2 The election was preceded by an
unprecedented anti-retention campaign3 sparked by Varnum v. Brien, a 2009
decision that invalidated Iowa’s In Defense of Marriage (“DOMA”) statute
and effectively legalized same-sex marriage.4 Following the announcement
that Iowans had not retained Justices Ternus, Baker and Streit, voters,
judges, political actors, and citizens were left wondering: What does this
election result mean?5 Did voters turn anti-gay animus into “no” votes at the
ballot box? Did voters take issue with the justices’ legal reasoning or merely
the policy implications of the decision? Were the election results a warning
shot directed at judges across the country faced with controversial
decisions?6 Or were the results about something else entirely?
The answers to these questions matter—to judges, lawyers, political
actors, citizens, and everyone in between. Not only do judicial-retention
elections fall at the intersection of law, public policy, and politics,7 the
1. IOWA SECY OF STATES OFFICE, OFFICIAL RESULTS REPORT 5, 10, 15 (2010), available at
http://www.sos.state.ia.us/pdfs/elections/2010/judicialorr.pdf.
2. Grant Schulte, Retention of Justices a Tossup, DES MOINES REG., Oct. 4, 2010, at 1A,
available at 2010 WLNR 19673438.
3. See id.
4. See Varnum v. Brien, 763 N.W.2d 862 (Iowa 2009). For a discussion of the Varnum
decision, see infra Part II.A.
5. Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich forecasted this question
before the election in a column aptly titled, Retention Vote Means: You Name It. Obradovich wryly
noted that through election results, Iowa voters might be sending any of the following
messages—they:
(a) Don’t want same-sex marriage in Iowa.
(b) Are afraid of judicial activism.
(c) Don’t mind special-interest influence.
(d) Don’t like judges, period.
(e) Consider one or more of the justices incompetent or corrupt.
(f) Forgot to turn over the ballot.
(g) All of the above.
(h) None of the above.
Kathie Obradovich, Op-Ed., DES MOINES REG., Oct. 10, 2010, at 3OP, available at 2010 WLNR
20210411 (numbering style modified).
6. This argument appeared in law-related publications following the election. For an
example, see Mark Curriden, Judging the Judges: Landm ark Iowa Elections Send Tremor Through the
Judicial Retention System, A.B.A. J., Jan. 2011, at 56.
7. Several major legal scholars have begun to devote attention to this intersection in
recent years. See, e.g., Erwin Chemerinsky, Preserving an Independent Judiciary: The Need for
Contribution and Expenditure Limits in Judicial Elections, 74 CHI.-KENT L. REV. 133 (1998)
(discussing the relationship between the regulation of judicial conduct, judicial elections, and

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