In the final leg of the campaign in Iowa, the Republican presidential candidates are talking about judges. No one has made them a bigger issue than Newt Gingrich.
Overhauling the judiciary has become one of his key proposals on the stump.
Conservatives have used "activist judges" as a battle cry for many election cycles now. But in Iowa, the issue has special resonance since the judiciary became a potent political issue two years ago.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. And conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats decided the people responsible needed to go. "We're going to become crystal clear in our focus on unseating three justices on the Nov. 2 ballot," he announced in August 2010.
That effort was successful. Those three justices are no longer on the state Supreme Court.
Drake University professor Rachel Caufield says that's thanks, in part, to Gingrich. "Newt Gingrich provided the seed money for that anti-retention campaign. And in doing so, he really created Bob Vander Plaats as the leader of the social conservatives in the state of Iowa," Caufield says.
'His Best Applause Lines'
So it's no surprise Vander Plaats has been praising Gingrich all over the state, and the candidate has made judges one of his key talking points.
But the Gingrich plan goes far beyond the kind of recall effort that was successful in Iowa. He has promised to eliminate entire courts and ignore Supreme Court decisions on issues ranging from national security to school prayer.
"I was, frankly, just fed up with elitist judges imposing secularism on the country and basically, fundamentally changing the American Constitution," Gingrich said on a conference call with reporters on Saturday.
On CBS's Face the Nation Sunday, he returned to the issue, saying Congress should subpoena and perhaps impeach judges who issue some controversial rulings.
The host, Bob Schieffer, asked, "How would you enforce that? Would you send the Capitol police down to arrest him?"
"If you had to," Gingrich said. "Or you'd instruct the Justice Department to send the U.S. marshal."
Some prominent conservative legal scholars have called these proposals ridiculous and irresponsible. But Caufield, who opposed the effort to recall the Iowa justices, says Gingrich's ideas are resonating with voters.
"These are his best applause lines at these events across Iowa," Caufield says. "In large part, I think that's because we had an anti-retention campaign, and this is now a key issue among social conservative voters."
That's helpful for Gingrich, because his stance on abortion and his three marriages have alienated him from some social conservatives. This issue may bring some of those voters back into the Gingrich fold.
Making Judges A Target
And Gingrich is not the only candidate to talk about judges during the campaign.
Recently, Texas Gov. Rick Perry had a memory lapse in front of the Des Moines Register's editorial board — he had to be reminded of Justice Sonia Sotomayor's name when talking about President Obama's appointment of "activist judges."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum regularly talks about the hours he put in on the "judge bus" that traveled around the state during the recall campaign in Iowa. And Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann often praises Iowa's voters for throwing out those justices.
"People in Iowa are sick and tired of having judges tell them what their laws are," she said on Fox. "They're not a superlegislature. They're judges. And they need to act like judges."
Judges are always a useful target for politicians, because they tend not to fight back. But Gingrich is the only one who has made this a core issue of his campaign in such an ambitious way.
Caufield says some of his proposals are things a president cannot do on his own. Others might create a constitutional crisis between the White House and the courts.
"There have been other times where we've seen concerted attacks against the courts," she says. "Those attacks on the courts usually fail."
But in the short term, they can succeed at rallying voters behind a candidate.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.