Ousted judges, ambassador get JFK award

BOSTON — President John F. Kennedy’s only surviving child is celebrating what would have been his 95th birthday this month by honoring three Iowa judges who were ousted after the court unanimously decided to legalize same-sex marriages.

Caroline Kennedy will also recognize the U.S. ambassador to Syria who risked his life to support opponents of President Basher Assad’s regime.

Kennedy heads the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which promotes the late president’s memory and legacy. She is set to present the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on Monday to former Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and justices David Baker and Michael Streit, all of whom were pushed off the bench in a 2010 retention vote that capped a contentious campaign.

The three judges will receive a sterling silver ship’s lantern symbolizing a beacon of hope. The award, which was designed by Kennedy’s husband, Edwin Schlossberg, and crafted by Tiffany &Co., resembles one belonging to the U.S. Navy’s oldest commissioned warship, the USS Constitution, or “Old Ironsides.”

Ternus, Baker and Streit were among seven justices who unanimously decided in 2009 that an Iowa law restricting marriage to a man and a woman violated the state’s constitution. Conservative groups and other gay marriage foes spent about $1 million on a political campaign to oust the judges, who chose not to raise money or campaign themselves to avoid dragging the judiciary into politics.

“The three judges are interesting and courageous on many levels,” Kennedy told The Associated Press. “… Like many of the people who get this award, they don’t consider that they are doing anything particularly courageous, they just feel they’re doing what’s right, they’re doing their job.”

Kennedy, who is a lawyer, said the three “knew when they were writing this decision that it was gonna be a pioneering decision and a landmark decision and would face a lot of popular opposition. They also were following very carefully the Iowa constitution and the rights that it gives to its citizens.”

This year’s Profile in Courage Award also highlights the dangers of politicizing the judiciary, which is supposed to be an independent branch that protects the civil rights of all Americans. The danger is particularly pronounced in areas where state and county judges spend growing amounts of money to get elected or fend off electoral challenges sponsored by groups promoting narrow agendas, she said.

The developing trend could eliminate an independent judiciary and taint the entire democratic system, Kennedy said.

“People aren’t so much aware of it, but it’s happening in judicial races much more than it ever did before, on the local level and even further up,” Kennedy said. “States appoint their judges and elect their judges differently, so it’s a harder thing to track — but I think, just as we are seeing … increased amounts of money in legislative races, now we are getting to see it in the judiciary where it has a much more dangerous effect because those are not supposed to be politicized races.”

Bob Vander Plaats, a Sioux City businessman and former Republican candidate for governor, led efforts to oust the three judges, arguing that being a servant of the law “doesn’t give the Iowa Supreme Court the authority to legislate from the bench, execute from the bench or attempt to amend the Constitution.”

Monday’s ceremony at the JFK Library and Museum will also honor U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford for ignoring repeated threats to his life and traveling around Syria to encourage and support peaceful protesters targeted by Assad’s brutal crackdown.

The protests and the ensuing crackdown spawned military defections, an armed rebellion, assassinations of government and military officials, massacres of civilians and international condemnation. A truce set to begin on April 12 has failed to stop the bloodshed, raising fears that Syria is degenerating into civil war.

The U.N. says 9,000 people have died in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011.

Ford, who left Syria as security conditions worsened, will be in Boston to accept the award. The Denver native, who now lives in Baltimore, remains the U.S. envoy to Syria.

“He’s exactly the kind of American that we want to celebrate and be proud of who’s engaged in building a more just and peaceful world,” Kennedy said. “We need more courageous public servants in all areas of our government and he’s certainly one of those and will, hopefully, show a path to others to follow his example.”

Last year’s award went to Wael Ghonim, the Google executive credited with helping to inspire the uprising in Egypt.

The Profile in Courage Award is named after the JFK book “Profiles in Courage,” winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1957.

Past recipients include President Gerald Ford and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is now a U.N. special envoy working on a tenuous peace plan for Syria.

This year’s award also celebrates what would have been the late president’s 95th birthday, on May 29.

“Hard to imagine, but it means a lot to our family that 50 years after his death, people still care about his vision and his ideals — and so it is a wonderful thing to be able to celebrate people who are carrying ideals forward in today’s world,” Kennedy said. “And that’s what Profile in Courage Award is all about.”

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