Marsha Ternus is a native of Iowa, growing up on a farm in northern Benton County. She received her bachelor’s degree with honors and high distinction, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Iowa in 1972. She earned her law degree with honors, Order of the Coif, from Drake University Law School in 1977. While at Drake, Ms. Ternus served as editor-in-chief of the Drake Law Review. She has received honorary degrees from Iowa Wesleyan College (2005), Simpson College (2010), and Coe College (2011). She is admitted to practice law in the State of Iowa (1977) and the State of Arizona (1984, inactive status).
After law school, Ms. Ternus worked for sixteen years in the private practice of law in Des Moines, with a primary emphasis on civil litigation and insurance law. While in private practice, she served as president of the Polk County Bar Association, on the Board of Governors of the Iowa State Bar Association, on the Iowa Jury Instructions Committee, and on the Board of Directors of the Polk County Legal Aid Society. Ms. Ternus also served as president of the Board of Counselors of Drake University Law School and on the Drake Law School Endowment Board of Directors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the Central Iowa Chapter of the American Red Cross for several years and was a participant in the 1983–1984 Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute.
Ms. Ternus was appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1993 by Governor Terry Branstad. The members of the court selected her as chief justice in 2006. She was the first woman to serve as chief justice of Iowa’s highest court. Her term on the court expired on December 31, 2010.
During her seventeen years on the court, Justice Ternus worked on a number of court initiatives and other efforts to improve the administration of justice in addition to her adjudicative responsibilities. She served as the judicial branch representative on the IOWAccess Advisory Council, which was instrumental in encouraging and guiding e–government projects. She also led efforts to implement an electronic document management system in the courts that will result in a paperless court system. Justice Ternus served on the judicial team that oversaw the design, development and construction of the Judicial Branch Building. She was also a member of the steering committee of the Iowa Supreme Court Commission on Planning for the 21st Century and served as co-chair of the commission’s administration team.
During her time as chief justice, Chief Justice Ternus encouraged court efforts to improve access to justice. In collaboration with Iowa Legal Aid, the court took steps to persuade Iowa lawyers to provide more pro bono services to persons who could not afford an attorney. The court also adopted rules to facilitate lawyers in providing unbundled legal services and organized a task force to study civil justice reform.
As chief justice, Chief Justice Ternus made the improvement of court oversight of child welfare cases a priority for the Iowa Judicial Branch. To this end, she led an effort to form and then chaired the State Children’s Justice Council, which consists of representatives of the judicial branch, state agencies and private entities involved in the child welfare system. The council works collaboratively to institute reforms and improvements in the Iowa courts’ processing of child welfare cases to minimize the time children spend in the foster care system. Chief Justice Ternus also served on the planning committee that organized a national summit on the protection of children in 2009.
Chief Justice Ternus served on the Board of Directors of the Conference of Chief Justices and was a member of the Conference’s Courts, Children and Families Committee. In addition, she chaired the Conference’s Court Management Committee and its Resolutions Committee. In 2009, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts appointed Chief Justice Ternus to the Judicial Conference Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction, where she was one of only four state supreme court justices serving on the committee. During her time on the court, she also served on the Multi-State Performance Test Policy Committee of the National Conference of Bar Examiners and chaired the Law School Task Force of the Drake University National Commission II. In 1996, she received the Drake University Law School Outstanding Alumnus Award.
Recent Professional Endeavors. Ms. Ternus currently practices law in Des Moines, with a focus on appellate and trial case consulting and arbitration. She has served as an expert on various matters, including issues of Iowa law, legal ethics, and insurance coverage and bad faith.
Ms. Ternus serves as the Director of The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement at Drake University, a part-time position. The Institute facilitates meaningful research and educational opportunities for students and faculty regarding the development and impact of public policy, as well as facilitating citizen involvement in the examination of public policy issues, encouraging civil debate and promoting discussion of divergent perspectives and opinions.
Ms. Ternus participates in the C. Edwin Moore Inn of the American Inns of Court and is a member of the American Academy of ADR Attorneys. Until her appointment as director of The Harkin Institute, she served on the Drake University Board of Trustees (2010-2013). Ms. Ternus recently completed her service on the selection committee for the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize (2012-2013) and on the the American Bar Association’s Bar Admissions Committee (2010-2012).
In May of 2012, Ms. Ternus and two of her former colleagues on the court received the 2012 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. She has also been honored with the 2011 Outstanding Contribution to the Well-Being of Children & Youth Award from Youth & Shelter Services, Inc. and the 2011 Louise Noun Civil Liberties Award from the Iowa ACLU. In 2011, Ms. Ternus was recognized with the first annual award for outstanding contributions to the welfare of children given by the Iowa Children’s Justice Initiative.
Ms. Ternus is a frequent lecturer on various subjects, including judicial independence, the politicization of the judiciary, and reform of the criminal justice system. Her article, Do Americans Still Value an Independent Judiciary?, appeared in the 2011 edition of The Book of the States, a publication of The Council of State Governments. Her opinion piece, Politics on the Bench–A Judge’s View of Partisanship at Play, was published in the National Law Journal on January 20, 2014. Ms. Ternus also taught a short course on restorative justice at Grinnell College in the spring of 2013 .