Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | People

Hail to the Chief: Marsha Ternus

By Kelly Stavnes

Even as a little girl growing up in Vinton, Marsha Ternus knew how to solve problems, think critically, and act with fairness. These characteristics would eventually help her make history.

Marsha Ternus Marsha Ternus dispenses justice as the first female head of the Iowa Supreme Court.

Earlier this fall, Ternus, 72BA, became the Iowa Supreme Court's first female chief justice. Elected to the post by her fellow justices, the former litigator is only the second woman ever to serve on the state's high court. She's also one of three UI alumni who serve as sitting chief justice of a state supreme court (the others are Ronald T. Moon, 65LLB, of Hawaii, and Ruth Van Roekel McGregor, 64BA, 65MA, of Arizona).

"This opportunity allows me to serve as a role model for young women, and it assures them that, with hard work, they can achieve their goals," she says. "However, I don't approach my job with the notion that I'm a role model. I just want to do as well as I can and have a positive influence on the direction of the courts in Iowa."

Given her success, it's hard to believe that Ternus never planned on a law career. In fact, her UI degree is in home economics, and she landed her first post-graduation job as a bank teller. She soon grew bored there, though, and—intrigued by the attorneys who came to the bank to process their clients' legal affairs—enrolled in law school at Drake University.

Ternus practiced law for 16 years at a Des Moines firm, primarily representing insurance companies in civil litigation. Although she didn't originally aspire to serve on the bench, she reached a point where she'd honed the analytical skills necessary to succeed as a judge. She applied for the Iowa Supreme Court and was appointed by Governor Terry Branstad, 69BA, in 1993.

As an attorney and judge, Ternus developed an impressive reputation for her integrity, honesty, and tireless work ethic, so it was no surprise that her colleagues unanimously supported her promotion. The mother of three plans to strengthen the court's oversight of child welfare issues and to preserve the best interests of children in foster care.

Above all, she says, "I want to be remembered as a good public servant."