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Marsha K. Ternus, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice

posted on May 28, 2007

Marsha K. Ternus, a native of Vinton, received her bachelor's degree with honors and high distinction from the University of Iowa and her law degree from Drake University, also with honors. Appointed to the court in 1993, her fellow Justices chose her as Chief in 2006.

And there is more to the job than rendering opinions. Iowa's Supreme Court oversees the state's entire court system, with a budget of about $130 million. It is responsible for about 1,900 employees and judges, licensing and disciplining attorneys, and promulgating rules of procedure and practice. And all that is to provide justice under the law equally to all persons.

Johnson Boyle: Chief Justice Ternus joins us now in our studio. Chief, welcome and thank you so much for joining us.

Ternus: You're welcome. It's nice to be here.

Johnson Boyle: Nice to have you. I guess I want to talk first about the focus of your work. On the Court's web site, it says that your mission is to provide independent and accessible forums for the fair and prompt resolution of disputes, administering justice under the law equally to all persons. Well, your request to the legislature last January about children suggests that perhaps they have not been treated equally in Iowa's judicial system. Do you want to talk about that?

Ternus: Sure. I think what we wanted to do was ensure that we were doing the best for our children that we could do as a court system. And so we're examining how we handle cases that affect children, to be sure that we're handling those on a priority basis so that we reach a quick resolution for them.

Time for children goes very slowly, and so if we say it's going to be another week before we decide some issue that affects them, where they're going to live, that seems like an eternity to them, so it's important that we focus on those cases, that we find permanency for these children who have been removed from their homes as soon as we can. It makes a big difference their lives.

Johnson Boyle: I imagine it does. And it sounds as though you're going to be getting much of what you have requested for children legislatively. Are you satisfied with that?

Ternus: Well, the legislature's response was tremendous and we're very, very pleased with how they reacted to our request in our budget for resources that will allow us to address these issues more efficiently and more effectively. So, yes, I'm very proud of our legislature for stepping up to the plate and giving us what we needed.

I'm sure as we institute best practices in the courts and handle these cases in the best way we can, we may find that we need additional resources. And we'll certainly make the legislature aware of that if that's the case, but they've been great so far.

Johnson Boyle: You're clearly quite passionate about helping children, and I'm curious as to why.

Ternus: Well, it really was just by accident, I have to admit. It was not part of my private practice when I was an attorney. But in 2005 the former Chief asked me to go to a national summit on children that was going to be in Minneapolis, and I said I would go on behalf of the Court. And at that summit, all the participants were educated in the issues affecting the Court's handling of child welfare cases, and it made me aware of issues that really I had had no involvement with before.

And so learning of the need to make improvements and knowing from my own experience with raising my own children how vulnerable they are and how important it is that they have a good childhood, yeah, it did, it made me passionate about doing something about it.

And now as Chief, I'm in a position I feel it's my responsibility to actually oversee and coordinate and urge others to join in so we can all work together to do the best we can.

Johnson Boyle: Before we leave the topic of your advocacy for children, I do want to mention that in your January State of the Judiciary speech, you talked about the court's efforts to make sure that a child in the system always has the same judge.

You said for older children who come to court proceedings, their judge may be the only constant figure in their life. With 5,000 children in foster care currently, it sounds like the problem goes way beyond what the courts can certainly do.

Ternus: Well, we're working with DHS and every other state agency, the private bar association. Everybody who's involved in these cases, we've all been working together to coordinate our efforts and learn from each other and how we can help the others do their job better. So we're off to a great start, and everybody has been very cooperative. It's been very easy to work with the other entities that are involved in these cases.

Johnson Boyle: Before we run out of time, I'd like to touch on a couple more topics. First of all, electronic technology. The court is obviously moving -- or trying to move Iowa's judicial system more towards electronic technology. There's obviously an upside but there are obviously privacy concerns; are there not?

Ternus: Right. What we're doing is trying to go to electronic files so that all of our court files are stored electronically. There are a lot of efficiency benefits that we can gain as a court system by doing that. But, of course, the corollary is that now it will be much easier for citizens to access our court records, which are public documents.

And a lot of times court cases involve very sensitive issues, and so we did alert the legislature in the State of the Judiciary Address that there may be concerns by their constituents about the openness of those public documents once they can be accessed on the Internet.

Johnson Boyle: Can you briefly just specify some specific concerns?

Ternus: Well, what we've heard from in the comments that we have received to the rules that we've adopted that will facilitate this change, people are concerned about divorce decrees and neighbors looking at how much they make and how much support was paid and maybe what the allegations were of one party against the other and those kind of things that you would normally not go up to your next door neighbor and start asking them about but you would maybe be surfing the internet and look into it.

Johnson Boyle: This is true. I would remiss as an interviewer if I did not ask you about the fact that you are the first woman Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice. What does that mean to you?

Ternus: Well, it doesn't really mean that much to me, the fact that I'm a woman. I mean I'm very honored to be the Chief. And the fact that I'm a woman, well, that's because I am. It's kind of irrelevant to me.

But having said that, I do know it's important for young women and young girls to have role models. And so I think it's wonderful from the perspective as what it says to those audiences, and that is that you can be whatever you want to be. You just have to work hard and hopefully things will work out for you.

Johnson Boyle: That's a great message for young women to hear. And what about just the legacy of the Court? There's 170 years of history in your job. Very briefly, the first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court was when it was still a territory. It said that no man in the territory can be reduced to do slavery. In 1868 it ruled that segregated schools were unequal. Is it important as you -- is it overwhelming to you to inherit all that as the Chief Justice ?

Ternus: Well, you know, you can't really think of it in that way, because it would be overwhelming. What we have to do is take each case and address it with the most integrity and the most fairness and impartiality that we can muster. And if we do that, then we will carry on a very proud tradition in the Iowa courts.

Really Iowans should be very proud of the Iowa Supreme Court because we have addressed some very tough issues well, long before the United States Supreme Court came around to that way of thinking. So we'll try to carry on.

Tags: civil rights Iowa Iowa Supreme Court Marsha K. Ternus

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