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. She has received honorary degrees from Iowa Wesleyan College (2005), Simpson College (2010), Coe College (2011) and Drake University (2015). Ms. Ternus was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 2015.
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. 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 Legal Aid Society of Polk County. Ms. Ternus also served as president of the Board of Counselors of Drake University Law School and on the Drake University Board of Trustees.
Governor Terry Branstad appointed Ms. Ternus to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1993. 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, after she and two of her colleagues on the court were not retained in the 2010 retention election. In May of 2012, Ms. Ternus and her two colleagues received the 2012 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. In announcing the award, the Kennedy Presidential Library stated the three justices “were chosen in recognition of the political courage and judicial independence each demonstrated in setting aside popular opinion to uphold the basic freedoms and security guaranteed to all citizens under the Iowa constitution.” In 2011, she and her two colleagues also received the Louise Noun Civil Liberties Award from the Iowa ACLU.
Ms. Ternus currently practices law in Des Moines, with a focus on appellate and trial case consulting, arbitration, and institutional Title IX adjudications and appeals. Ms. Ternus is a frequent lecturer on various subjects, including judicial independence, the politicization of the judiciary, and reform of the criminal justice system. As part of a team of judges, she also teaches judicial decision writing to Carribbean magistrates and judges in workships sponsored by the National Center for State Courts.