Former Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Baker said "overwhelming" may be an understatement on how he felt when he received a call two weeks ago from Caroline Kennedy telling him he and two other former justices were being honored for their judicial courage by protecting constitutional rights for all individuals.
"I was surprised and very honored," said Baker, now a mediator in Cedar Rapids. "I thought I was getting a call from someone with the (John F. Kennedy Presidential) Library about judicial independence but not an award and not from Caroline Kennedy herself."
Baker, along with former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former Justice Michael Streit, who all lost their retention vote in 2010 after being part of the 2009 unanimous decision to overturn a law banning same sex marriage, will receive the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award May 7 in Boston.
“This year’s Profile in Courage Award honorees have shown uncommon valor as public servants,” Caroline Kennedy, President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, said in a news release. “When Justices Baker, Streit, and Ternus joined a unanimous decision to overturn a law denying same-sex couples the privileges of marriage, they sacrificed their own futures on the Court to honor Iowa’s constitution and the rights of all its citizens.”
"Throughout their careers Justices Ternus, Streit and Baker dedicated themselves to upholding the Constitution and serving the people of Iowa with integrity," Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady said. " It was an honor to serve with them, and I’m happy to see them receive this national recognition."
Robert Ford, The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, also is a recipient of the award this year.
Streit, now a mediator in Des Moines, said he probably stammered at first, but luckily didn't question whether the award was a joke.
"It's very flattering and humbling," Streit said. "This was out of blue. Nobody knew anything about it."
Ternus said the phone call is "all kind of a blur" and it took a few minutes to dawn on her who was actually talking to her.
"We never expected an award for upholding our oath in office," Ternus said. "It's a wonderful award for doing your job....a beautiful thing to have happened."
The former justices said they have no regrets for the 2009 opinion that led to legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa.
"I'm pleased that the foundation recognizes the current assault on the courts and the historical importance of a fair and impartial court system," Baker said.
Baker said the justices knew at the time their decision wouldn't make everybody happy, but they upheld the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Iowa.
"The founding fathers understood the need for an independent judiciary," Baker said. "The Iowa Constitution is very specific - any law inconsistent with with the constitution is void."
Streit said they followed the law, were not influenced by politics or social issues and stayed true to the state constitution.
In the court's opinion, it stressed that its responsibility was “to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time.”
The Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences, according to a news release. 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, incurring the wrath of constituents or powerful interest groups, by taking principled stands for unpopular positions.This year’s recipients acknowledged for their political courage were selected by a bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders, according to a news release.