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Congratulations to Iowa Jurists on Profiles in Courage Award
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/08/12
Last updated on: 03/08/12
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The Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines.

On March 6, 2012, the John F. Kennedy Library announced that former Iowa Supreme Court Justices Marsha Ternus, Michael Streit, and David Baker will receive the 2012 Profiles in Courage Award. Widely considered the nation's most prestigious honor for public servants, the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was created in 1989 by the former president's family as a means of highlighting political courage.

The award is named for President Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers by taking principled stands for unpopular positions. The award seeks to make Americans aware of conscientious and courageous acts of public servants, and to encourage elected officials to do what is right, rather than what is expedient.

The award is presented each May at a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in connection with the observance of President Kennedy's May 29 birthday.

The three justices to be honored in 2012 lost their retention bid in the 2010 elections after right-wing groups, including the National Organization for Marriage and the American Family Association, poured money into the state to unseat them because they joined the court's unanimous 2009 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

That decision, Varnum v. Brien, written by Justice Mark Cady, who will not face a retention vote until 2016, declared, "We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective. The legislature has excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification. There is no material fact, genuinely in dispute, that can affect this determination."

Acknowledging that the decision may not be a popular one in a conservative state, the Court insisted on its duty to uphold the Iowa constitution. "We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law. Faithfulness to that duty requires us to hold Iowa's marriage statute, Iowa Code section 595.2, violates the Iowa Constitution. To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our constitutional duty."

The vote to remove the three justices was unprecedented in Iowa history. It was celebrated by conservatives as a rebuke of "activist" judges and as a repudiation of same-sex marriage in the state, but it has alarmed proponents of an independent judiciary and those who look to the courts to protect the rights of minorities.

The justices received only about 45% of the vote in their retention election.

Justices Ternus, Streit, and Baker were certainly courageous in ruling in favor of same-sex marriage in a conservative state, but perhaps somewhat naive in their decision not to campaign actively for retention. They did not raise campaign money, and only toward the end of the campaign did they even make public appearances defending themselves.

Their defeat may also fairly be attributable to the failure of the glbtq community to come to their aid. The campaign did not receive the national attention it deserved. Thus, while the opponents of same-sex marriage poured millions of dollars into the campaign to defeat them, the supporters of their courageous ruling failed to respond to the same degree. Indeed, most glbtq people were not even aware of the election.

According to the New York Times, when the election results became clear, the leader of the campaign to defeat the justices, homophobic perennial candidate for governor Bob Vander Plaats, gloated, "I think it will send a message across the country that the power resides with the people, It's we the people, not we the courts."

But those who regard the courts as a protector of minority rights see the politicization of uncontested judicial elections as dangerous. "What is so disturbing about this is that it really might cause judges in the future to be less willing to protect minorities out of fear that they might be voted out of office," said Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Law. "Something like this really does chill other judges."

After their defeat, the judges declined requests for interviews but released a statement that decried what they called "an unprecedented attack by out-of-state special interest groups." They added: "Ultimately, however, the preservation of our state's fair and impartial courts will require more than the integrity and fortitude of individual judges, it will require the steadfast support of the people."

Marsha Ternus was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1993; in 2006, she was named Chief Justice of the Court, the first woman to hold that position. Michael Streit was appointed to the Court in 2001. David Baker was appointed to the Court in 2008.

In the video below, Caroline Kennedy discusses the Profiles in Courage Award.

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