Andrew Rosenberg ’12 recognizes that his native Iowa—known for corn, soybeans, and the state fair—might seem mundane to his East Coast classmates. But he’s quick to point out that, compared to its neighboring states, Iowa is considered cutting edge. And for the past year and a half, Rosenberg has delved into a political firestorm in Iowa touched off by one of the most hot-button issues of our day: same-sex marriage.
Photo: Will Kirk / Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu
Rosenberg, recipient of a Provost’s Undergraduate Research Award, didn’t choose the controversial research topic to express his own views on the subject.
“I wasn’t necessarily interested in the Supreme Court decision, but the backlash in the state,” Rosenberg says. The voters’ incendiary reaction to the ruling was as unprecedented as the ruling itself. In a well-funded, widespread grassroots campaign, Iowan voters—for the first time since 1962, the start of its current system—ousted three of its Supreme Court justices who had voted in favor of overturning the same-sex marriage ban.
So, with an open mind and a keen curiosity, Rosenberg returned to Iowa to speak with key players on opposing sides of the controversial ruling.
His first interview was with Bob Vander Plaats, leader of the campaign to oust the three Supreme Court justices. The businessman and unsuccessful three-time candidate for Iowa governor from Sioux City was open to an interview, perhaps because of how Rosenberg presented his interest.
“I tried to make it as clear as humanly possible that this was a scholarly work, and I wasn’t out there to expose him as some sort of intolerant bigot,” Rosenberg says.
In turn, Vander Plaats shared his position. He argued that the way in which Iowa chooses its Supreme Court judges—they’re appointed by a governor-formed commission—is not constitutional. “To him, that’s not the people electing the judges,” Rosenberg explains. He suggests that Vander Plaats’ populist position harkens back to the mindset of politicians such as Thomas Jefferson, who would vote in Congress as his constituents, including small yeoman farmers, would want.
Next, Rosenberg spoke with Judge Robert Hanson. The district court judge of Iowa’s Polk County, Hanson in 2007 wrote the original opinion for that county which struck down the decades-old ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional. It also paved the way for the Iowa Supreme Court, two years later, to make it illegal for any citizens of Iowa to be denied a marriage license based on sexual orientation.
“He, too, was thoughtful and clear in his belief that this was not ideological or otherwise motivated,” says Rosenberg. Hanson’s message? That a law that wasn’t consistent with the constitution needed to be changed.
Rosenberg held his longest interview with Judge Michael Streit, one of the three justices voted out of office following the 2009 decision to legalize same-sex marriage in Iowa. They discussed the ramifications of rulings that attempt to uphold the constitution but aren’t popular among voters, citing examples such as the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.
“I learned Judge Streit’s views on the ruling itself, as well as the extent of the opposition against the justices, which involved heavy out-of-state financial support,” says Rosenberg. He adds that his research has led him to consider that perhaps the best way to preserve independence of the judiciary might be to return to the federal model of lifetime appointments.
“A lot of people say Iowa is a flyover state,” Rosenberg reflects. “But studying this whole thing makes me realize that there are always academic questions to be investigated, even in seemingly mundane places like Iowa.”