Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus: An Inside Look into the Tenure of Iowa's Former Chief Justice

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus: An Inside Look into the Tenure of Iowa's Former Chief Justice

Article excerpt


Chief Justice Marsha Ternus, the first female chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, is one of the nation's most admired and respected jurists. Although unsuccessful in her state's recent retention election, Ternus exemplifies what it means to be a chief justice through her platform of reforming Iowa's child welfare system, updating the court to an electronic records management system, and improving the Iowa judiciary overall.

This paper will examine Ternus' voting trends during her time as Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, from September 2006 to December 2010. In Part II, the Chief Justice's upbringing and career path will be discussed. (1) Part III will provide a brief overview of the history and composition of the Iowa Supreme Court. (2) Then, in Part IV, Ternus' voting patterns will be studied in two important ways. (3) First, opinions authored by Ternus will be reviewed. Here, split decisions will be scrutinized more closely. Then, the sole dissent authored by Ternus as Chief Justice will be examined. Next, cases regarding child welfare will be evaluated. Additionally, comparisons will be drawn in terms of the number of child welfare cases decided on Ternus' bench versus those decided on Chief Justice Lavorato's bench, Ternus' immediate predecessor. The methodology for each portion will be explained in the footnotes. An emphasis will be placed on cases that most accurately depict areas where the Chief Justice has a particular interest. Finally, Part V will present the findings of the voting analysis. (4)


Prior to delving into Chief Justice Ternus' voting patterns, it is helpful to become acquainted with her upbringing and career path. A native of Iowa, Ternus was raised on a farm in northern Benton County and graduated from Vinton High School in 1969. (5) She later earned her bachelor of arts degree at the University of Iowa in 1972 and shortly thereafter, in 1977, received her juris doctor from Drake University. (6) While in law school, Ternus served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Drake Law Review. (7)

Following graduation, Ternus worked at the law firm of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave for sixteen years, where her primary practice was civil litigation and insurance law. (8) While in private practice, she held positions on the Board of Governors of the Iowa State Bar Association, the Iowa Jury Instructions Committee, and the Board of Directors of the Polk County Legal Aid Society. (9) She also served as the President of the Polk County Bar Association and on the Drake Law School Board of Counselors. (10)

In 1993, Ternus was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court by Republican Governor Terry Branstad. (11) She became Chief Justice when her colleagues selected her for the position in 2006. (12) Ternus is the first woman to serve as Chief Justice in the over 170-year history of the Iowa Supreme Court. (13) As Chief Justice, Ternus focused on improving court oversight of child welfare cases. (14) She now chairs the State Children's Justice Council, which consists of representatives of the judiciary, state agencies, and private entities working together to improve the child welfare system. (15) In 2009, she also served on a planning committee which organized a national summit on the protection of children. (16)

Recently, Chief Justice Ternus made headlines for the retention elections that occurred on November 2, 2010, when she was removed from her position, along with three other Iowa Supreme Court Justices. (17) This is the first time in Iowa's history that justices have been removed during a retention election. (18) The reason for this unfortunate result has been attributed to the Court's holding in Varnum v. Brien, which legalized same-sex marriage. (19) This unanimous decision, though rendered in a constitutionally sound manner, spurred a campaign to remove those justices up for reelection. (20)

Following their removal, Ternus along with Justices Baker and Streit stated that they "hope Iowans will continue to support Iowa's merit selection system . …

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