BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
JAMES BALOG: Climate changes are not imaginary, not theoretical, not based on computer models. It's right there in front of you.
BILL MOYERS: And…
JOY CORNING The Judicial Branch should be totally free from politics and money.
SALLY PEDERSON: So many other things appear now to be for sale in the political arena. And we don't want justice to be for sale.
ANNOUNCER: Funding is provided by:
Carnegie Corporation of New York, celebrating 100 years of philanthrapy, and committed to doing real and permanent good in the world.
The Kohlberg Foundation.
Independent Production Fund, with support from The Partridge Foundation, a John and Polly Guth Charitable Fund.
The Clements Foundation.
Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues.
The Herb Alpert Foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society.
The Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation.
The John D. And Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. More information at Macfound.Org.”
The Betsy And Jesse Fink Foundation.
The HKH Foundation.
Barbara G. Fleischman.
And by our sole corporate sponsor, Mutual of America, designing customized individual and group retirement products. That’s why we’re your retirement company.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Before we get to the serious business, let’s correct the record. Big Bird isn’t the only public broadcaster on whom Mitt Romney and the conservative propaganda machine have opened hunting season. If you saw Bill O’Reilly’s debate with Jon Stewart a week or so ago you saw Big Bill repeatedly trying to use me as the poster child for the federal deficit.
BILL O’REILLY: We have a president here who believes in social justice, alright. He wants to take your money, my money, the money of the one percent. And he wants to give it…
BILL MOYERS: He even came armed with a flash card.
BILL O’REILLY: …Bill Moyers. There he is. Bill gets it. […] Here’s what’s ridiculous…
JON STEWART: I wish I had a poster.
BILL O’REILLY: …sixteen trillion dollar debt and we got to pay for Bill Moyers? Let him compete on his own!”
BILL MOYERS: Nice work, O’Reilly. And thanks for the attention. But if you had grown up watching Sesame Street, you’d know your alphabet by now. And you would know NPR is not PBS. I’m on television, just like you. Well, not exactly like you. You reside in an alternate reality, where the truth is as elusive as a moonbeam and facts as alien as little green men with bug eyes.
Your flash card even had it wrong. NPR doesn’t pay me. I don’t work for National Public Radio, never have. This weekly series is on public television stations but we don’t get any money from PBS, either. We raise the funds ourselves, as anyone who can read would know. You can see who our funders are right there, before and after every broadcast. So if anything, we’re putting money into public TV. Over the years our programs have raised millions of dollars for stations across the country. That is a fact. Big Bill’s whole debate with Jon Stewart was like that. Even when he offered up a morsel of praise for anyone, he tripped over the facts. He gave a thumb’s up to Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, who were guests on Moyers & Company last week, for putting President Obama’s feet to the fire on immigration reform.
JORGE RAMOS: A promise is a promise. And with all due respect, but you didn’t keep that promise.
BILL MOYERS: But he had their network wrong, too.
BILL O’REILLY: And that was a best interview by the way, these Telemundo people. That was the best one so far in the campaign.
BILL MOYERS: They’re on Univision, Bill. Not Telemundo, those two are competitors. Suppose I mixed up your Fox News Channel with, say, the Cartoon Network.
Anyway, no hard feelings. I’ve never even met Bill O’Reilly, by the way. But over the years, as his attacks on public broadcasting and our independent journalism have mounted, I have kept inviting him to come on our program to have a civil conversation about our differences. No editing, no tricks. I’ll even introduce him to our fact checkers, some of the best in the world. We use them, too.
So, Bill, come on over. But one word of warning: Big Bird’s a friend of mine. And we public television types stick together, like birds of a feather. Besides, he’s bigger than both of us.
Climate change is real and even though there’s little talk about it coming from the presidential candidates, most people agree. A new survey from Yale and George Mason University finds that a great majority of us, 74 percent of those polled, believe “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”
But it’s impossible to truly grasp this reality unless you can see it with your own eyes. That’s the beauty of what my guest James Balog is doing. Earth, he says, is having a fever. So five years ago, he created the Extreme Ice Survey, combining art and science to tell the story of a planet in peril. Risking life and limb, this photographer and filmmaker, mountaineer, author and prophet has gone to the top of the world to show us overwhelming evidence of what we’re doing to the environment.
His discoveries are in this magnificent new book, “Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers” -- and in the feature length documentary Chasing Ice, soon to be released.
Here’s an excerpt from its trailer.
JAMES BALOG in Chasing Ice trailer: It all started in Iceland.
I think I’m so certain to get wet I’ll take my boots off.
I never imagined that you could see glaciers this big disappearing in such a short time. There’s a powerful piece of history that’s unfolding in these pictures, and I have to go back. The initial goal was to put out 25 cameras for three years, shoot every hour as long as it was daylight. That would show you how the landscape is changing.
Oh, this is the way to travel, my friend.
MALE VOICE in Chasing Ice trailer: We’re putting really delicate electronics in the harshest conditions on the planet. It’s not the nicest environment for technology.
MALE VOICE in Chasing Ice trailer: I do not want to go any lower than this. It’s just bottomless.
JAMES BALOG in Chasing Ice trailer: I’m going out here on this broken fin and I assume it won’t collapse.
JAMES BALOG in Chasing Ice trailer: This is big stuff happening right now.
Okay, onward. This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone, it may never be seen again in the history of civilization and it’s stored right here.
BILL MOYERS: James Balog has come here from Iceland and Alaska with some urgency because what he has to tell us, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney simply refuse to talk about. Welcome, James Balog.
JAMES BALOG: I’m glad to be here, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: I've read the science on climate change. And then I read your book and saw your film and suddenly I more than get it. It gets me. Does that make sense to you?
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, it does. And that's the same reaction we've heard from many, many, many people across all parts of the philosophical and political spectrum. It really is this convergence of art and science that I think really hits people. And yeah, to be honest with you, having learned about these kind of sciences back when I was in my 20s, I tried to forget about the sciences for many decades.
And I went off and saw the world as a visual artist. And then in this project I came back and really infused the science back into my thinking about, thinking and feeling about the world as an artist. And it turned out that this combination of art and science together has been a really powerful thing that's really animated people and animated their understanding of this. The art is speaking from one half of your brain and the science is speaking from the other half.
BILL MOYERS: So let me play for you some footage you shared with us of glaciers, and then I have a question about it. Watch this.
JAMES BALOG IN FILM: In 1984 the glacier was down there, 11 miles away. And today, it’s back here. It receded 11 miles. The glacier retreating, but it’s also thinning at the same time. It’s like air being let out of a balloon. You can see what’s called the trim line; it’s the high water-mark of the glacier in 1984. That vertical change is the height of the Empire State Building.
JAMES BALOG: We're at Columbia Glacier in Alaska, in south central Alaska right along the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean. And when you, when you look at those things your brain goes, "Is this possible? Can I actually be seeing something this epic in front of my eyes?"
And you go, "Okay, I see that trim line, I see the deflation, I see that there was-- Tad Pfeffer, my scientist friend, who's been up there forever says, "Yeah, the glacier was down there once upon a time and now it's back here." And you still can't quite grasp it in your heart about how monumental that is.
And then you put the camera up on the mountaintop, you bolt it to the bedrock and you let it sit there. And it's your little surrogate eyes. And those little robots, our little R2-D2, they're sitting out there clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking, watching the world change. And you go back a year later and you see what it saw and it's, like, unbelievable. It's phenomenal. And then you start to get it.
And every time we open up the back of one of those cameras after it's been out there for a year and nobody's touched it, it's a strange feeling almost like Christmas morning because you know you're going to see something that you passionately want to see and it's going to be this incredible revelation. It's like this magic happens when you open that box.
Now, I'm not saying it's a happy magic because this is sad that the ice is going away. It's sad in its own way. But it's also, as a photographer it's exciting and revelatory because you're in the middle of history. You're seeing something that the human mind would never normally get to see. The cameras are seeing it for you.
BILL MOYERS: So the first time you opened it a year later what did you see?
JAMES BALOG: We saw the ice had gone back a quarter mile. And then we opened it a year later and the ice had gone back another quarter mile. And that scene that's in that shot, almost all that ice is now gone as we sit here today. We just had somebody up there on that mountaintop just a month ago. And he re-photographed these scenes and there's practically nothing left.
BILL MOYERS: But haven't glaciers been shifting and shaping and forming and breaking up through the millennia? I mean, can you be sure you're not just photographing a snapshot of an ancient process that has been going on and will be going on?
JAMES BALOG: Look, I was originally something of a climate change skeptic. And I'd say that in spite of the fact that I was trained in these kinds of sciences.
To be clear glaciers have always advanced and receded. You know, that has happened over time. That's a natural part of the earth's cycle. But what is very well established from the science of the past several decades is that the rates of change that we're seeing right now are much greater than what they had been not very many years ago.
There's been a significant acceleration of glacial retreat over the past 30 or 40 years. And that seems to clearly be tied to changes in the atmosphere and the impact of carbon dioxide and methane and nitrous oxide on the composition of the atmosphere in this. It's all part of this cycle of changing weather patterns and changing ocean currents and temperatures that we're seeing in a lot of places in the world.
We can see that we're now in a really extremely anomalous, weird condition in terms of the earth's long term history.
BILL MOYERS: How so? Describe that to me.
JAMES BALOG: Well, the earth has always gone through these cycles of warming and cooling that are connected with the way we move around the sun, the way the earth orbits the sun and the way the axis of the earth tilts.
And that's what has brought on the great ice ages of the past. These processes are connected with a cycling of the composition of the earth's atmosphere, okay. And during the ice ages the earth's atmosphere goes down to about 180 parts per million of carbon dioxide.
I don't want to bore you with too many numbers here, but this is really important that people get this. A hundred and eighty parts per million is at the bottom of an ice age atmosphere. At 280 parts per million that's kind of the natural peak. So nature naturally cycles between 180 and 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We're now at 395.
We're moving towards a level of carbon dioxide concentration that hasn't been seen since tens of millions of years ago. And really the main period when the earth had that much of that gas in the atmosphere was back in the days of the dinosaurs when the composition of the atmosphere is really, really different and it alters the basic makeup of life on the planet, the plants and the animals and the conditions in which they live.
So people say, you know, why do we care about this warming that’s happened before? Well, guess what? People didn't live here when it was like that. The age of agriculture, the age of industrial civilization depends on us living within this relatively comfortable range of temperature and precipitation and atmosphere that we've been in for the past 10,000 years. We're pushing ourselves far outside our range of comfort right now. And that's the real danger.
BILL MOYERS: You said you were somewhat of a skeptic, you had a negative reaction to many of the reports coming out twenty years ago about global warming. What made you a skeptic and what converted you?
JAMES BALOG: Well the first thing I was skeptical about was that maybe this was just another hyped up activist cause, okay. The second thing that was much more profound was the fact that I had understood that the science was based on computer models.
Computer models were relatively sketchy on this. And computer models are only as good as the data you put into them. Now, the computer models of today are really, really good. There are still some blank spots in them, but for the most part they're way, way better today than they were 20 years ago.
But even more substantially, what made me a skeptic 30 years ago was that I didn't have it in my head that it was possible that our species, homo sapiens, was capable of so profoundly altering the basic physics and chemistry of the planet. I didn't think it was conceivable. And of course the revelation that we can alter the physics and chemistry so profoundly is something that has just emerged in the scientific community in the past ten or 15 years. And it's a really revolutionary idea.
BILL MOYERS: But something had to reveal itself to you in such a way that caused you to take on this Extreme Ice project. Because this is an amazing -- when people see the film I think they'll be as amazed as I was by the sheer logistics of what you did. Just describe for me what that project is all about.
JAMES BALOG: Well, you know, the thing that really set me off was that I spent some time to understand the record that was kept in the ice. And that's when I realized we weren't talking computer models. We're talking about the historic record, the knowledge that was in the ice. There's knowledge, there's not just time, there's knowledge embedded in the ice which is kind of amazing when you think about it.
You know, ice is just this blob of stuff there. Why do you care about ice? Well, it is truly the memory of the world. So then I realized, all right, I'm a photographer, I'm interested in these things and I have to tell a story about climate change somehow. So I spent about five years zigging and zagging, researching, reading, thinking about things, trying to figure out how I could visually manifest climate change in pictures.
And I kept coming back to the notion that the story had to be in the ice. That to my photographic way of thinking was the only place where I could actually see climate change happening.
BILL MOYERS: A small technical question. You leave this equipment up there in the coldest of weather, coldest of climate for years at a time. What kind of equipment is it? How do you know it's not going to be overwhelmed by the weather? And does it happen, the elements?
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, especially in the beginning of the project that was a huge uncertainty. You know, nobody had built equipment like this before.
The cameras have to survive 150-mile-an-hour winds, they have to work at 40° they have to survive deep snow storms, torrential rainfall with the rain blowing at hurricane force sideways. And I was actually quite anxious that first year or so. And we deployed a very expensive 25 camera network in the spring of 2007, not really knowing for sure how well the stuff would survive those elements.
But I really felt the pressure of time. Like, you know, this situation is changing. I can't wait, I can't do lab experiments, I can't take it into some cooler for a year and see if it's going to work. We have to catch these scenes right now because the world is disappearing in front of our eyes.
BILL MOYERS: Perversely perhaps the time I felt most keenly for you was not when you were rappelling down the side of that crevasse but then you had opened one of those cameras on a second or third visit and it hadn't worked.
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, we went through a lot of different iterations of the electronics. But that doesn't mean we didn't have some challenges. We have still had cameras knocked out by rock fall coming off cliffs. You know, these are very dynamic landscapes where we are. These are not static at all. There's a lot of rubble coming down the sides of these mountains.
We had one camera that was buried under 20 feet of snow in Alaska and just literally the entire system was peeled out of the-- off the bedrock by the weight of the creeping snow sliding downhill. We've had electronic glitches. And yet for the most part, the things actually work. And we just keep going on and on. And somehow, you know, our destiny is correct. We're supposed to be telling this story.
We feel the glaciers. It's almost-- it's almost tangible, it sounds bizarre, I guess. But you almost feel the power of those glaciers and those landscapes wanting to speak through you through those cameras.
JAMES BALOG IN FILM: It’s been shooting the entire time. Fantastic. Here’s the memory of the camera, and this is, actually that’s an interesting thought. This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization and it’s stored right here.
JAMES BALOG: Without the voice of the cameras they would really have no voice and these landscapes would just disappear and nobody would be the wiser. It would be as if a tree fell in the forest and no one was there to hear the sound. It's the exact same conundrum. If a glacier melts in the Arctic and there's no camera there to see it did it ever really exist? Did it ever really happen? Well, the cameras give life and give voice to those processes and those places.
CORRECTION: The two photos that appear at 16:00 and 16:07 in the interview are actually from 2011, not 2012.
The scientific language that this story is told in is profoundly, profoundly, profoundly important. And it's what we build the pictures on. So I don't want to forget that. But then when you stack the visualization on top of the scientific understanding and then you marry those two things together, the art and the science, and you have something really powerful.
BILL MOYERS: When I saw the NASA satellite imagery of Greenland I thought-- I honestly thought, "Why doesn't Jim Balog let NASA do it? He doesn't have to take the risk anymore. This technology's doing what he does."
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, you're exactly right. And we had that same conversation at the start of the Extreme Ice Survey. And the answer is that eyes in a satellite, camera eyes in a satellite that are 400 miles above the earth's surface tell one kind of a story.
And camera eyes that are in the hands of a human being down on the ground surface tell a different kind of a story. And humans can relate better to a story told from the human level than they can to a story told from the satellite level. Because that's where we live. We don't live 400 miles in the air. We live down here with our feet on the ground.
BILL MOYERS: Could you be describing a death spiral?
JAMES BALOG: Well, it's about mortality for sure, it's the mortality of those landscapes. And there is some sort of spiral of change going on in the Arctic. And time will tell if it's truly a death spiral or not. But it certainly is a period of enormous change.
But you know, I want to be clear that yes, I love the ice. Yes, I love the beauty of the ice. Is this a book about endangered species of ice? Not exactly. I mean, it is, that is what we're talking about. But really what we're talking about primarily is ice as a harbinger, as a predictor, as an avatar of change for the whole world.
BILL MOYERS: As you know some people don't think this change is bad. About the time my wife and I were watching your film I was also reading Elisabeth Rosenthal's reports in the New York Times on how Greenland's melting ice is uncovering vast new deposits of minerals and gems. I mean, the ice apparently has concealed one of the world's largest deposits of rare earth metals essential for the world's cell phones, wind turbines, electric cars. I mean, there's a, potentially she said, a new Greenland being created by global warming.
JAMES BALOG: Yes. This is true. It is undeniable. It depends on how you look at the world, I suppose.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but the CEO of one mining company in Greenland says, "For me, I wouldn't mind if the whole ice cap disappears." And a geologist, an Australian geologist working in Greenland says, "This is huge. We could be mining this for the next 100 years."
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, well, they're looking at the world through their own filter, their own perception. And yes, it's true. I have a cell phone, you have a cell phone and those minerals that feed that cell phone have to come from somewhere. Would I rather see it come from somewhere that's not this incredible pristine landscape, one of the last pristine landscapes in the world? Yes, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: But you know there are people who say that anything we do to combat global warming is an attack, direct quote, "On American middle class capitalism."
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, I've got a problem with that, and here's why. I just learned that back in the '50s, 1950s when people first started to say, "Hey, DDT is not good for the world," that same argument was brought out about DDT. It was like, "Hey, you're against American capitalism, you're against industry. This is no good, you should allow DDT." Well, guess what? It's turned out that stopping the widespread indiscriminate use of DDT has been a really good thing for you and me and all the plants and animals in the world.
Then in the 1960s and '70s when we started to learn that cigarette smoke was bad for human beings whether it was directly inhaled or it was secondhand smoke, same argument. You're trying to limit and regulate free market American capitalism. No fair, not good. Well, guess what? It's also turned out that regulating cigarette smoking is probably a pretty good idea, or at least minimizing the presence of it.
The same arguments are being brought out right now. You're against prosperity, you're against progress, you're against the American way of life. Guess what? The Stone Age didn't end because the world ran out of stones. That's a direct quote from one of the Saudi Arabian oil ministers from some decades ago. The Stone Age ended because we discovered that there were better tools around than stones.
And we're in the midst of something of a transition like that right now. It may be a long term transition, but we're in the midst of realizing that fossil fuels come with a lot of unintended Murphy's Law kind of consequences, a lot of things we weren't counting on and that there are indeed better tools to serve a significant number of our needs and purposes than burning more carbon and throwing it up in the atmosphere.
BILL MOYERS: You have two daughters?
JAMES BALOG: I have two daughters.
BILL MOYERS: What are their names?
JAMES BALOG: My daughter, Simone is 23 years old and my daughter, Emily, will be 11 in just a couple days.
BILL MOYERS: Now, when they saw you go off, you're going to far places, you're going to dangerous places, you're going to places where friends of yours have perished on those crystal waters. You're going to places where it's cold and, what do they think? How do you justify doing that to them?
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, now you, now you drove the stake through the heart here. It’s--
BILL MOYERS: No, but look, I saw in your film you rappel over the edge of some of these icy ridges down into what looks like a bottomless gorge.
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, it's terrifying. And I've had a lot of internal struggle over exactly the question you raise. And here's how I answer it. I picture myself when I'm 85 years old and I'm sitting in a rocking chair on the porch and I can't do any of this anymore. And I see those girls as grownups, I see them now in their 30s or 40s or whatever it is.
And they're saying to me, "Dad, the world has changed. The climate is profoundly different than the world you guys were living in back in the first part of this century. You were in a unique position to tell the story. What were you doing with your voice?"
And I want to be able to tell those girls, "Girls, I did the best I could. I really, I understood it, you know, I saw it. And it was important to me, I thought it was important to you. And I'm doing my best to tell the story with the skills and tools and time I have." And I made this sort of pact, this bargain with the fates in my head. I don't know if the fates are listening, but I guess the fact that I'm still standing here alive is-- means that they have been listening.
I'm going to do my best here, just give me a chance. Don't kill me when I go out there. And, you know, I get a little choked up and emotional because it's an emotional thing that you hold in your head when you're saying goodbye that last day before you go to Greenland or you go out to the glacier in Alaska. There's always that little voice in your head saying, "Well, this could be it."
BILL MOYERS: Have there been moment when you were close to it?
JAMES BALOG: Yeah, yeah, yeah, there've been a number of them. And it's not a happy thing, believe me. It's not-- it doesn't fill you with a sense of peace and serenity. It's like, "Oh God, I shouldn't really be here. I hope we get out of this okay."
BILL MOYERS: And then you go back again?
JAMES BALOG: And then you go back again. And I go back because I feel there's a mission, there's a purpose, there's a need, there's a cause. And you know, Bob Dylan had a wonderful quote in an interview many years ago. Somebody asked him, "Well, you know, Bob, you're awfully old and you're still touring. And why are you doing this? Are you happy?"
And he said, "The point isn't to be happy. The point is to be doing what you're supposed to be doing. And it's very much the same way for me. This project comes with a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, a lot of risk, but it's what I'm supposed to be doing. All the currents of my life have brought me to this moment.
BILL MOYERS: Are we in your opinion; are we almost at a point of no return?
JAMES BALOG: I hate to say it, but yeah, I would have to agree with you. I can't sugarcoat that one. We are really right on the edge of the crisis. We might be in the crisis already. I mean the fact that year after year after year, this pollution of the atmosphere keeps going up remorselessly with no significant deflection is really a problem.
But we have the economic capacity, we have the technological capacity and we at least have the theories about how to govern ourselves in order to deal with this. We know how to do this. That's what's so God-awful ironic about this. We know how to deal with it and we're not dealing with it. So if we kind of wake up, we get out of our mental torpor and we can break the shackles of the special interest groups that are preventing positive progress on this we can handle this, we know how to do it.
BILL MOYERS: Are you going back up any time soon?
JAMES BALOG: No, no.
BILL MOYERS: You've had enough of the high country?
JAMES BALOG: No, never, never, absolutely not. I mean, it's just, it's so incredibly beautiful. When I'm getting ready for a lot of these trips, as I'm packing my cameras I go, "Good grief. How can I possibility shoot anything new on this trip? You now, it's going to be a repeat of the same old thing." And every single time I go out and reality delivers something new where you go, "Wow, I've never seen that before, and isn't that cool?" Click, get another shot.
BILL MOYERS: The book is ICE: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers and the film's title is?
JAMES BALOG: Chasing Ice
BILL MOYERS: Which you've done for a long time.
JAMES BALOG: Been chasing ice, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: James Balog, thank you for being with me.
JAMES BALOG: My pleasure, thank you.
BILL MOYERS: In case you haven’t noticed, something’s afoot with our judicial system. Across the country, large sums of money – much of it secret – are pouring into the races for high court judges. And in several states, partisan groups with funds from undisclosed sources are out to punish justices for rulings the partisans don’t like.
Take Iowa as the prime example. The state Supreme Court there is considered one of the fairest and most impartial in the country. Justices are chosen on merit, through a non-partisan nominating process long respected by both parties. But two years ago, Iowa conservatives knocked off the bench three state Supreme Court justices who were part of a unanimous decision upholding same sex marriage on constitutional grounds. Now those conservatives are trying to remove a fourth justice who had joined in that decision.
AD NARRATION: Iowa voters made history last election holding activist Supreme Court judges accountable for ignoring our will and imposing gay marriage. Now we must hold David Wiggins accountable for redefining marriage and legislating from the bench. Only 63 percent of his peers support his retention. In school, that’s a D minus. If David Wiggins can impose his liberal values and redefine marriage, many of our Iowa traditions and rights are at risk. Hold David Wiggins accountable. Vote no on Wiggins.
BILL MOYERS: Although that ad refers to “our Iowa traditions,” it was produced by the National Organization for Marriage based in Washington, D.C.. Most of the money spent to unseat the three judges in 2010 came from outside the state. And this year, in their crusade to turn out Justice David Wiggins in November, Iowa conservatives have called in some more help from outsiders. Including a state-wide bus tour.
GREG BAKER: I’m Greg Baker, I’m the Executive Director of Iowans for Freedom. We appreciate you all coming out today to help us kick-off the “No Wiggins” bus tour. I’m sure we’re all excited to vote no on Judge Wiggins, is that right?
GREG BAKER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Bobby Jindal is Governor of Louisiana.
BOBBY JINDAL: You know, I don’t have any problem with Justice Wiggins, opposing liberal views. I don’t have any problem with him wanting to espouse his views on marriage or whatever else he chooses to ride on. But if he wants to make law he needs to do that by running for the legislature, not from the bench of the Supreme Court of the great state of Iowa.
BILL MOYERS: Rick Santorum is the former United States senator from Pennsylvania who won the Iowa caucuses in January before losing the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney.
RICK SANTORUM: The irony of a group of judges taking the one bulwark of freedom, the constitution, to use it to destroy the second bulwark of freedom, virtue, is truly a corrupt act. The people of Iowa have an opportunity to say no. We are no longer going to stand by and let the elites, who believe they know best how to write the laws and change the constitution, run roughshod over the rights of people.
BILL MOYERS: Iowa is often a bellwether state for national politics. So when out-of-state partisans and out-of-state money combine to try and take down and take apart a highly esteemed court in the heartland, you never know whose next. That’s why we wanted to talk to a couple of Iowans who have organized the non-partisan group Justice Not Politics. They’re fighting to protect the independence of their Supreme Court against efforts to vote justices off the bench.
Sally Pederson is a Democrat and the state’s Lieutenant Governor from 1999 to 2007. She's past chair of the Iowa Democratic Party and a longtime advocate for children and adults with autism.
Joy Corning is a Republican and former school teacher. She was one of her party’s leaders in the state legislature before being elected to two terms as Lieutenant Governor from 1991 to 1999. Both have been inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
Welcome to you both.
SALLY PEDERSON: Thank you, Bill.
JOY CORNING Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: So, let's get something basic down. What's unique about the way Iowa chooses your state supreme court judges?
JOY CORNING We have a merit system. We have a judicial nominating committee. And that is composed of seven members appointed by the Iowa Bar Association, seven members that the governor appoints. And it is chaired by the senior supreme court justice. They then interview people who have applied for these positions and recommend three people to the governor. And then the governor makes the decision. And this is a non-partisan commission.
BILL MOYERS: And I understand this came about because 50 years ago voters in Iowa amended the constitution to remove partisan politics from that selection process. Is that right?
SALLY PEDERSON: That's exactly right. I think that people in Iowa were concerned that there was going to be politics and money in the court system and in the way that judges were selected. And so, they made this a constitutional amendment. That means it had to be passed by two consecutive legislative sessions and then it went to a vote of the people. So, this was very important to the people of Iowa. It's in our constitution. And we want to keep it that way. We don't want to change a system that's kept money and politics out of our courts for 50 years.
BILL MOYERS: So, what's happening now?
JOY CORNING Well, when the decision came down from the Supreme Court about same-sex marriage, there then began to be opposition to this particular ruling.
BILL MOYERS: So, there was an outcry when those judges, it was a unanimous decision on the court--
JOY CORNING It was, yes.
BILL MOYERS: -- to uphold marriage equality, right? But they didn't accept that. They didn't like that decision, right?
JOY CORNING Correct. They did not and started a process then of telling people that they should vote against the retention of the justices not for the reasons that you should vote against, say, malfeasance in office, incompetence, that sort of thing, but merely because of this one decision.
SALLY PEDERSON Really, what the court said was that the government cannot discriminate against you based on your race or your religion or sexual orientation or how much money you have. And so, that is really about, you know, equal protection under the law. And we all want to see that in place. We want our judges and our justices to base their decisions on, you know, the constitutional law. And that's what they did.
BILL MOYERS: They said in effect--
SALLY PEDERSON: That the government cannot deny rights to people based upon, you know, characteristics.
BILL MOYERS: Including the right to choose your marriage partner.
SALLY PEDERSON: Including the right to love whom you want and have a civil contract that gives you a lot of rights under our state laws.
JOY CORNING And they specifically, in that decision, said, "This is," as Sally said, "a civil right. We are not talking about what churches can decide to do, whether they want to marry people or not. That's a decision, a religious decision for them.”
SALLY PEDERSON: In fact, they reaffirmed religious liberty. They reaffirmed the right in the decision that churches you know, if this is not part of their belief and part of their creed, they have the very right not to do this. This is about our government and about, you know, civil laws. And everyone has to be treated the same under the law.
BILL MOYERS: Why should the rest of the country care about what's happening in the state of Iowa on this issue?
SALLY PEDERSON: This is not an isolated incident. We know that in states across the country, the courts are being attacked. And it's really an effort to get money and politics into this branch of government.
What people would like to do is intimidate judges and make them understand that if they make a decision that's counter to the interests of certain groups, that, that they'll go after them. And they'll see to it that they're brought down, that they're ousted
BILL MOYERS: And raise a lot of money to do so.
SALLY PEDERSON: That's exactly right. In fact, they really want to change our system in Iowa. And instead of having a merit system, they've done a number of things to attack the courts and really overturn our system. I think they'd much rather see that all judges were elected across the country. Then they could control that third branch of government.
You know, two years ago when they were successful in ousting three of these Supreme Court justices who were up for retention, it was money from outside the state. Over one million dollars came into the State of Iowa.
That's big money in Iowa. And, and they were successful. And a lot of people were surprised. They never expected that this would happen in our state. So Justice Not Politics has been in operation since that time. And we're prepared this time to be able to turn that around.
JOY CORNING The “No Wiggins” bus tour went to 15 different communities in Iowa. But we followed up with our own bus tour, giving the real story of why we ought to keep our merit selection process in Iowa and asking people to vote yes on Wiggins.
DAN MOORE: The court and Justice Wiggins did not amend the constitution from the bench. The truth of the matter is, they applied the constitution. The constitution remains the same.
BILL MOYERS: But where were you two years ago? Because they tossed out three of the judges who participated in that decision upholding gay marriage.
SALLY PEDERSON: We got a late start, for sure. And, and we were underfunded. And we didn't have a good message. And we failed. But I think Iowans are awake now to the possibilities of what can happen if you're just sitting back and not doing everything you can to defend your democracy and to defend the system of government that you have.
BILL MOYERS: What did you find out about who was behind this well-orchestrated and well-funded effort three years ago?
JOY CORNING They're out-of-state organizations that gave money to that effort.
SALLY PEDERSON: The American Family Association is one of those organizations.
BILL MOYERS: Which is?
SALLY PEDERSON: Out of Tupelo, Mississippi. They're really a right-wing hate group, they've been identified, as by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And then an organization out of Washington, D.C. that is anti-same-sex marriage. So, they have an agenda. And they're dumping money into Iowa to see to it that if they can turn back these justices in Iowa, it will send a signal to other states. You know, those judges and those justices, you know, better be careful about what kind of decisions they make, because they'll go after them.
BILL MOYERS: Newt Gingrich showed up in the campaign in 2010. Why was he there?
SALLY PEDERSON: Well, that's about presidential politics. And as you know, Iowa is first in the nation with our caucuses. So people who have an interest in running for president, they're there to stir up the social conservatives. They're looking for support and votes in future elections. And I think that's why we had Santorum and Jindal in Iowa. They're looking at presidential politics four years from now.
BILL MOYERS: Joy, you are a Republican. The Republican state party in Iowa has endorsed getting rid of these judges and Justice Wiggins. Has that ever happened before? Has a state executive committee, the state party in Iowa ever said, "We should do this"?
JOY CORNING No. And I was appalled and saddened when I read that statement from the chair of our party, actually voting, asking Republicans to vote against Wiggins. I thought that was most inappropriate. And I know there are lots of Republicans that would not agree with that at all.
Former Governor Ray, former Lieutenant Governor Art Neu, and a number of Republican legislators that I have discussed this with that are all supportive of the retaining Justice Wiggins and our system.
BILL MOYERS: However, your opponents say, in Iowa, the people who want to remove Justice Wiggins as they removed the first three, say they're only doing what the state constitution allows, that the power not to retain a judge on the bench is guaranteed to the people. And that's how democracy keeps justices accountable. That's what they're saying and writing out there, as we speak.
JOY CORNING Well, they have said lots of things in writing that we would disagree with or that we think are untruths.
SALLY PEDERSON: Yeah. But, you know, obviously, yes. Yes, you know, it's on the ballot and people have the right to vote. But they're not electing a judge or a justice. They're just determining whether this justice is qualified to be retained. And a retention vote pivots around whether a judge has done something that shows that they're unsuited to serve or that they're corrupt. It's not about, "Do I agree with their decisions?" because we want them to make decisions, not based on popular opinion, but based upon the law.
BILL MOYERS: But you know—
SALLY PEDERSON: And that's what they're sworn to do.
JOY CORNING In our, this 50-year history of our merit selection system, we have only had four judges that have not been retained in office.
BILL MOYERS: In a campaign, in an election, you stand up for yourself. You defend your position and advocate for your election or reelection. But the judges who were targeted in 2010, and Justice Wiggins who's targeted now, did not and are not actively campaigning in their behalf.
JOY CORNING Well, I think they don't want to politicize the courts.
SALLY PEDERSON: That's exactly right. I mean, this is the very nature of what the, of what the principle is that we're talking about. We don't want our judges and justices to be running for office. And so, they can't campaign. That's part of their code of conduct.
That's why we're doing this campaign, because we want to keep our judges and justices from having to raise money and go out and campaign. In a sense, if they do that, then the very people they take money from, they then, there's at least the appearance that they owe that-- that person or that special interest something.
BILL MOYERS: Justice Wiggins did write an op-ed piece in which he said quote, "I want to keep my job, believe me, but I will not jeopardize the integrity of the Iowa Supreme Court in the process. More important, I hope Iowa Supreme Court justices never have to raise money from political donors to ask for your vote." But haven't the rules of the game changed? And aren't justices expected now to play by the new rules?
JOY CORNING Well, let me tell you what the Supreme Court justices have been doing. They have been holding court around the state at-- in various different locations. And they have been giving lots of talks. I just recently heard Justice Wiggins at my rotary club.
And although he does not say, "Vote for me," he gives more of a civics lesson, I will say. But this is, I think, what some people need to hear, too. But they are trying to be more visible and have more people understand what they actually do.
SALLY PEDERSON: You know, we elect our legislators, we elect our Executive Branch president, governor. If we also have money and politics involved in our courts, then what is safe from just the opinions of the day?
BILL MOYERS: Has the Democratic Party in Iowa taken a stand?
SALLY PEDERSON: No, they have not. And—
BILL MOYERS: Are you disappointed by that?
SALLY PEDERSON: No. I think that's the right thing. I don't think we want a system where the parties start saying, "Yes," to this judge, "No," to that judge. I think that's a terrible thing. Then it's no longer, you know, then it's politicized. It might as well be, you know, part of the Legislative or Executive Branch.
BILL MOYERS: But times have changed. We're such a politicized and polarized and partisan society today.
SALLY PEDERSON: We need the courts more than ever. We need to have a branch of government that people trust to make decisions that are based on our Constitution and on our laws and not on what the special interest wants and not what you know, a corporation might want.
And if you're a judge and you know what a particular party's stand is on an issue, and that issue comes before you, then, you know, you may think twice about how you decide that, because you know that party will come after you. That's, that's a terrible way to operate our courts.
BILL MOYERS: So, both of you, put this in some larger context. Obviously, it's not just, as you said earlier, about Iowa. It's not just about the American Family Association, the right-wing group in Mississippi. Do you see a larger pattern at work that's reshaping the Republican Party and our national politics?
SALLY PEDERSON: Well, I think money in the system. So many other things appear now to be for sale in the political arena. And we don't want justice to be for sale. So, you know, I think it's important that citizens have a better understanding and appreciation for what is going on around them, and they recognize this as part of a larger effort to have the people who have money to be able to control every aspect of our government.
BILL MOYERS: Just this morning I read a recent study reporting that over $200 million was spent in the last decade on state Supreme Court judicial campaigns. What do you make of that? Joy?
JOY CORNING Well, I think it's terrible. And I guess I'm so glad that I live in Iowa, where I know that if I, for some reason, had to go to court, I could go before a court that was fair and impartial in their decisions and it would not make a difference whether I had given a judge or a justice money for a campaign.
BILL MOYERS: One of the big spenders nationwide is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It won 21 of the 24 state judicial races in that it was involved in from 2001 to 2003. Do you think that's a coincidence?
SALLY PEDERSON: No, I don't believe it's a coincidence. And I think this is a real threat to democracy. When we lose faith in the ability to get justice through our court systems, then we're really in trouble.
JOY CORNING And what's interesting is the United States Chamber of Commerce has named Iowa's court system as one of the top five in the nation.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there was a recent study showing that more and more people in this country are distrustful of the judicial system, including the Supreme Court. Do you think there's a correlation between the amount of money that's pouring into these races and the growing public distrust of the courts?
SALLY PEDERSON: We're already seeing courts being attacked in other states. And the-- you know, sort of multiplier effect of how much money there is in, you know, invested in these court battles now compared to, you know, two years ago, four years ago, eight years ago, it's just, you know, there's an enormous effort to have money as part of the equation in our legal system, in the courts. And that's a bad thing for democracy.
BILL MOYERS: Sally Pederson, Joy Corning, thank you for being with me.
SALLY PEDERSON: Thank you, Bill.
JOY CORNING Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Iowa, as we said, is a bellwether state, and what has happened there is spreading. In Florida, the state Republican Party is trying to oust three state Supreme Court justices for a ruling on President Obama’s healthcare law that conservatives found disagreeable. A local Tea Party faction in Pennsylvania says it will take on two justices who refused to uphold the voter ID law that was passed by Republicans in the state legislature.
Meanwhile, of the 38 states that elect their high court judges, North Carolina is one of the few that utilizes public funding for its judicial campaigns. But now some folks have formed a Super PAC there so that unlimited and undisclosed funds can try to determine who dispenses justice. Round and round it goes and where it stops, only the highest bidder knows.
There’s more on all this and how you can take action at our website, BillMoyers.com. And you can see more of James Balog’s work: stunning, before and after photographs of global warming’s impact on the world’s disappearing glaciers.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.