Iowa judicial nominee faced query on marriage vows

IOWA CITY – One of three finalists for the Iowa Court of Appeals faced an unusual – critics say inappropriate – question during a public interview: Had she violated marriage vows made to her husband, former State Auditor David Vaudt?

The question was lobbed at Assistant Iowa Attorney General Jeanie Vaudt last week by Scott Bailey, a prominent Christian homeschooling advocate and member of the State Judicial Nominating Commission.

“Did you make covenant vows with your husband, and do you feel you have or that you are breaking those in this situation?” Bailey asked Vaudt, referring to a marriage agreement based on biblical principles.

The question, which violated the commission’s own guidelines, came as some legal observers worry Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has packed the panel with conservative activists.

Vaudt had brought up her marriage to David Vaudt, who resigned as auditor in May to lead a national accounting standards board, during her opening statement Thursday. She said commissioners might wonder why she stayed in Iowa when he took a job 1,600 miles away in Connecticut. She said she was confident no one would ask about her marriage in the public interview, but didn’t want anyone “making any decisions about me based upon assumptions or presumptions that might be inaccurate.”

“One of the primary reasons I am staying here is because my judicial aspirations are here. I want to be a judge on the Iowa Court of Appeals,” she said. “I am happy to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure I can perform my duties in an exceptional manner.”

Bailey told Vaudt he wasn’t aware of the situation, “but it does raise a question for me now that you’ve mentioned that.” He then asked whether she’s breaking her vows, to which Vaudt responded she and her husband have always been completely supportive of each other.

The commission later recommended Vaudt, 59, of West Des Moines, as one of three finalists to replace retiring Chief Judge Larry Eisenhauer. The others are 57-year-old Sharon Greer, a partner at a Marshalltown law firm; and Polk County Judge Christopher McDonald, 38. There were 22 applicants.

Branstad has one month to make a selection.

The commission was created to vet judicial nominees based on their merit and not political factors. The handbook for commissioners warns that questions about marital status, a spouse’s employment and religion are inappropriate. One example of such a question from the book is: “What does your spouse think about your being a judge?”

In an interview Tuesday, Bailey nonetheless defended the question and said he was satisfied with Vaudt’s answer.

“I wanted to know if her husband was supportive,” he said. “I wanted to know whether her ambition was so high that there was no relationship in life that mattered more to her than her becoming a judge.”

Bailey, a financial consultant and vice president of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, said that he uses the word “covenant” to refer to guiding principles in all areas of life.

Guy Cook, president of the Iowa State Bar Association, called Bailey’s question highly unusual, saying commissioners typically ask about a candidate’s experience, judicial temperament and motivation to become a judge.

In an email, Vaudt said only that she tried to answer all the commission’s questions to the best of her ability.

Donna Red Wing, executive director of gay rights group One Iowa, called the question inappropriate.

“First, he would never ask that of a man. And second, to ask about somebody’s covenant with their husband, I think that crosses a church-state line. Wow,” she said. “And maybe third, it was kind of a stupid question.”

Branstad appointed Bailey, of Otley, in January along with seven other citizens – all Republicans – to the commission. Bar association members elect eight attorney representatives to the commission, which is chaired by a senior Iowa Supreme Court member, currently Justice David Wiggins.

The commission has been a chess piece in the yearslong power struggle over the role of Iowa’s judiciary between conservatives and the state’s legal establishment.

Religious conservatives led an unprecedented campaign in 2010 to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were part of the unanimous decision to legalize gay marriage.

The Iowa State Bar Association and civil rights groups fought back last year against what they called the politicization of the judiciary, and helped Wiggins defeat a conservative attempt to oust him from the court in the November elections.