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In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, the Republican presidential candidates are talking about judges - none more than Newt Gingrich. He's made overhauling the judiciary one of his key proposals on the stump.

The issue has a special resonance in Iowa, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Des Moines.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Conservatives have used activist judges as a battle cry for many election cycles now. But in Iowa, the judiciary really became a potent political issue two years ago. The State Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage here in 2009. And conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats decided the people responsible needed to go.

He held this news conference in August of 2010.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: We're going to become crystal clear in our focus on unseating three justices on the November 2 ballot.

SHAPIRO: That effort was successful and those three justices are no longer on the State Supreme Court. Its thanks in part to one of the men trying to win the caucuses here next month, says Drake University Professor Rachel Caufield.

PROFESSOR RACHEL CAUFIELD: 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.

SHAPIRO: 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 here in Iowa. He has promised to eliminate entire courts and ignore Supreme Court decisions on issues ranging from national security to school prayer.

NEWT GINGRICH: Because I was, frankly, just fed up with elitist judges imposing secularism on the country and basically fundamentally changing the American Constitution.

SHAPIRO: That was 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...

BOB SCHIEFFER: How would you enforce that? Would you send the Capitol police down to arrest him?

GINGRICH: If you had to. Or you instruct the Justice Department to send a U.S. Marshall. Let's take...

SHAPIRO: Some prominent conservative legal scholars have called these proposals ridiculous and irresponsible, but Professor Caufield, who opposed the effort to recall the Iowa justices, says Gingrich's ideas are resonating with voters.

CAUFIELD: These are his best applause lines at these events across Iowa and, 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.

SHAPIRO: That's helpful for Gingrich because his stance on abortion and his three marriages have alienated him from some social conservatives. He's not the only candidate to talk about judges in the campaign. Texas Governor Rick Perry had this recent memory lapse with the Des Moines Register newspaper.

GOV. RICK PERRY: From my perspective, inarguably, activist judges, whether it was - not Montemayor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sonia Sotamayor?

PERRY: Sotamayor. Sotamayor. And Kagan are both activist judges.

SHAPIRO: Former Pennsylvania Senator 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 Congressman Michele Bachmann often praises Iowa's voters for throwing out those justices, as she did here on Fox.

MICHELE BACHMANN: People in Iowa are sick and tired of having judges tell them what their laws are. They're not a super legislature. They're judges.

SHAPIRO: 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.

Professor 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.

CAUFIELD: There have been other times where we've seen concerted attacks against the courts. Those attacks on the courts usually fail.

SHAPIRO: But in the short term, they can succeed at rallying voters behind a candidate. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Des Moines.

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