Marsha Ternus, the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, continued her statewide campaign tour in Cedar Rapids last week. Ternus spoke to about 100 members of the Cedar Rapids West Rotary Club on Wednesday. The Chief Justice also made appearances in Ames and Cedar Falls recently. She travels to Fairfield and Sioux City this week.
Ternus was introduced to the club by another one of her collogues who is also up for retention a week from Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice David Baker. Before being appointed as a judge, Baker was an attorney in Cedar Rapids.
The Chief Justice left little doubt about why she was in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday. She began her remarks by warning those in attendance that the upcoming judicial retention vote is more than it seems. “At this moment in history, voters are deciding what type of court system they choose to have,” Ternus said.
Ternus and the Iowa State Bar Association have misled Iowans by saying that the retention vote could mean more than just a few judges losing their jobs. While there have been some who are upset with the composition of the state’s judicial nominating committee, the anti-retention campaigns have focused entirely on ousting judges, not changing Iowa’s merit based system.
Throughout her 25-minute speech, Ternus constantly warned that those who vote “no” on retention are putting the Court’s independence at risk from outside influences. She also added that the Iowa Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and if any law violates the constitution, it will be rendered void. Ternus made a point to make sure people understood that the Court voids laws and resolves conflicts, and that it does not legislate.
Ternus said that there has never been this sort of campaign against the judges who are up for retention. Ternus was obviously talking about Iowa for Freedom, a group that is urging people to vote no on the three Supreme Court Justices. The group has strong ties to the American Family Association.
Likewise, Iowans have never seen any judge travel the state to speak to various groups in advance of a judicial retention election, let alone the Chief Justice. Iowa has never ousted a Supreme Court Justice, and only four Iowa judges have ever not been retained. Those four judges all had personal conduct problems.
Ternus did say that the Courts have never been immune to criticism. She provided three quotes criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, in the days that followed the ruling that desegregated public schools. She said that today, the Brown decision is almost unanimously supported.
She then used the Brown case as an example of why the Court shouldn’t base its decisions on public opinion. Ternus noted that three of the Supreme Court Justices who heard the Brown case were from southern states, which were segregated at the time. She implied that, had those judges bowed to public sentiment, segregation would have continued.
The Chief Justice also took questions from the audience. One person asked about the history of Iowa’s “merit system” for selecting judges, but two other people asked Ternus some questions that she struggled or failed to answer.
Ternus spent a considerable amount of time talking about how the court must defend the state’s constitution. One gentleman in the room asked her about the constitutional convention, and more specifically about using it as a way to pass an amendment defining marriage between only one man and one woman.
The person asking the question was inquiring about what would happen if such an amendment were to pass. Obviously, if the court must defend the constitution, and the constitution doesn’t allow gay marriage, then the Varnum decision would become void. Instead of answering the question, Ternus was coy and didn’t want to speculate about what may or may not happen.
Another person asked Ternus if Iowa’s state code cannot discriminate in regards to marriage, then what prevents someone from marrying more than one person? Ternus said that’s a good question for the legislature.
It is nice to see that Ternus believes that it is the legislatures role to determine the laws that govern marriage. Unfortunately, the Iowa Supreme Court didn’t think enough of the legislature to let it make the changes to the state’s marriage laws after it ruled the Defense of Marriage Act to be void.
There is little doubt that Ternus is traveling the state campaigning to save her job. As she mentioned in her remarks, judges are not prohibited from campaigning. What’s unfortunate is that instead of defending the court’s actions, she and others want people to believe that a “no” vote on retention could lead to our court system being politicized.
Exercising our constitutional right to vote no on the retention of a judge does not inject politics to our judicial system. In fact, one could argue that doing so is what the people who advocated for Iowa’s merit based system intended. If the people don’t have a right to vote no, then why does the questions even appear on the ballot in the first place?
What Ternus and her allies are upset about is that the merit system that they so revere could lead to their removal from the bench. As I’ve written before, the retention vote is one of the few options that people have to send a message about gay marriage in Iowa. The people should not be blamed for using this means of redress. Along with the Court, an unresponsive legislature is responsible for the frustration of the people whose will continues to be ignored.
Photo by Dave Davidson
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