Ternus speaks, First Lady calls Ternus defeat “travesty” (AUDIO)

Chief Justice Marsha Ternus is being honored at a luncheon in Ames today.  The Youth and Shelter Services organization based in Ames is giving Ternus this year’s “outstanding contribution to the well-being of children and youth” award.

First Lady Mari Culver, an attorney, and a 16-year-old from Gilbert who lives with a foster family and who has become an advocate for other kids in foster care will present the award.  The “one child/one judge” policy Ternus instituted for child welfare cases moving through the court system is cited by the group as a major achievement in Ternus’ tenure as chief justice.

The luncheon began with a representative of the Friends of Iowa Civil Rights organization giving Youth & Shelter Services an award.   

“You may not know this, but Iowa has a tremendous history of civil rights,” he said.  “…We hope there will be some changes in the future to help our state realize the importance of what has just happened.”

That was a reference to November’s judicial retention election which saw voters oust Ternus and two other justices from the Iowa Supreme Court.  YSS filed a friend of the court brief in the Varnum v Brien case (the gay marriage case that was the central issue of the judicial retention election.)

George Belitsos, founder and CEO of YSS, said 15 to 20 percent of the runaway kids in homeless shelters across the country “are struggling with sexual identity issues.” Belitsos said one of the goals of YSS is to “teach tolerance to the next generation.”

Belitsos did not mention Varnum v Brien, but he indirectly made a reference to the ruling and to the judicial retention election. “I challenge all of you in this room…we’re called by our conscience to respond with a lot more force and much more courage to fight bigotry, to influence public policy and to protect our vulnerable youth,” Belitsos said.

A series of awards are being given to organizations like the Principal and individuals who help homeless youth through Youth & Shelter Services.  I suspect the award to Ternus is the final one to be given today.

A couple who have been foster parents to 17 children were honored, and then First Lady Mari Culver came to stage to present Ternus her award. 

“I’m very pleased to recognize the leader of Iowa’s courts who has been vital to the success and the future of this state’s children and youth,” Culver said to begin.   Culver then went through the highlights of the Ternus resume, including her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993 by then-Governor Terry Branstad and her elected in 2006 by her fellow justices to serve as chief of the court.

“Her statewide policy of one judge/one child has had a major positive impact on the welfare of children and youth,” Culver said, noting a series of different judges used to handle a child’s case as it moved from one jurisdiction to another.

“As a spokesperson, Justice Ternus has recruited hundreds of…volunteers to serve as advocates for children,”  Culver said.

The 16-year-old said she had been put into foster care when she was five and she was adopted at age 9, then put back into foster care five years later because the adoption didn’t go well.  “I’ve had the same judge,” Rogers said of her .  “…If you change judges, the judge will not know what is going on…Thanks to Justice Ternus, I have the same judge as I had when I was five years old.”

The crowd stood to give a standing ovation to the young women, who choked back tears as she told her story. 

“The political season is over, so I guess I can speak my mind,” Culver then said, and the crowd erupted in applause.  “What happened in the November elections with the Iowa court system is a stain on the history of our state.”

More applause. “It is a travesty that this very highly-respected leader…who ensured justice for the most vulnerable in our courts, the children, will be leaving the Supreme Court because of a well-funded partisan campaign to oust three supreme court justices because of a single decision with which they disagreed. An independent, impartial judiciary that bases decisions on the rule of law is the foundation of our state and our democracy and our delivery of justice in Iowa.”

More applause.

“The selection and retention of judges in this state must remain free from the infusion of petty, partisan politics.  Chief Justice Ternus, your departure is a loss not only to the court and to the whole state, but to the children and the youth of our state” Culver said.   

Culver called Ternus forward. Ternus praised the young woman who told her foster care story. “I’m afraid all of my composure was taken away,” Ternus said.

“There is no more important contribution that any of us can make to the society than to help children and families in need,” Ternus said.  “…When I joined the court in 1993, I had no idea my work…would include advocacy for children…I had not only an opportunity but an obligation as a member of the Iowa Supreme Court to foster the contributions that the court system could make in working with agencies…to do everything we could for the vulnerable children of our state. When we ensure that our children have a good upbringing, we give them the tools they need to become responsible, productive and happy adults…They’re just kids and they’ve had a bad break, but they all have wonderful potential if we care enough.”

“…I am truly thankful for the opportunities that I have had as a member of the court to advocate on behalf of children and families.  It’s the most important work that I have ever done,” Ternus said, her voice breaking with emotion. “And thank you for this award.”

Listen to the event: TernusAward

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.