Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Night with Great Women, Great Chiefs

Student's Perspective on Dinner and Symposium Remarks with State Chief Justices Margaret Marshall, Marsha Ternus, and Jean Toal

by Nicholas Forst

Nicholas Forst is a second-year student at Albany Law School and the newly selected Moot Court Board Executive Chair for the 2011-2012 Karen C. McGovern Senior Prize Trials Competition.

Thanks to Professor Vincent Bonventre, our State Constitutional Adjudication Seminar was able to have dinner with two State Chief Justices: Hon. Marsha Ternus from Iowa and Hon. Jean Toal from South Carolina.  This dinner was held on the eve of the Albany Law Review's Symposium titled, Great Women, Great Chiefs, where Hon. Margaret Marshall from Massachusetts joined the panel.  It was a wonderful opportunity for Professor Bonventre's students, and we are extremely grateful to the Chief Justices for taking the time to sit down with us.  This article contains this author's impressions from both the dinner and the Chief Justices' remarks at the Symposium.

During our time with the Justices, it became evident how each personified a different approach to legal issues in their roles as head of their respective State judiciaries--Chief Justice Toal, the Firebrand Justice; former Chief Justice Ternus, the Platonist; and retired Chief Justice Marshall, the Revolutionary.  Although it may be considered overly simplistic to assign each justice a title like she is the Amazing Spiderman; the purpose behind it is to more easily qualify the fundamental platform from which their theories and actions emanate.  I believe this was clearly evident in the way each Justice approached her tenure on the court and the current state of affairs in the legal field.

The adversity she faced as a women moving up the legal ranks in South Carolina clearly influenced Chief Justice Toal.  Indeed, she, like retired Chief Justice Marshall, is a revolutionary--being one of only four women in her class to graduate from law school--but it is the tenacity and zealousness she brings to any situation that truly defines her.  Her speech was highlighted by historic events, which furthered women's emergence into the legal field.  However, her points of view on access to the courts and the need for technological reforms were most striking.  Her position ultimately contends that there should be more access to the courts.  When potential plaintiff have more access, a more representational process occurs. This process allow better diversity in the court's decisions, as it represents the true needs of the community.  Chief Justice Toal's personal tenacity and zealousness also underlies her theory of access.  Essentially, the court must do more to reach all of the potential clients.  Case after case must be heard so that the court can more adequately advance the law in a way beneficial to its citizens.

Chief Justice Ternus exhibits a platonic philosophy with regard to the administration of Iowa courts.  Plato, in devising his view of the perfect city, specifically believed that the best rulers of the city were a select group forming an aristocracy of qualified rulers.  Chief Justice Ternus finds that the Iowan selection process reaches a similar outcome.  The selected justices are considered free from political affiliations, which supposedly leads to qualified decision-makers.  This is also evident in the way that Chief Justice Ternus feels the about the manner in which her Supreme Court should make its decisions.  She posited that the court should be collegial and reach consensus before handing down decisions.  Despite the year to year-and-a-half waiting period for a decision, they rarely come down with a mixed result.  Although many may hail this as a sign of best practices, it is in my belief, ultimately dependent on the Court's specific make-up.  Clearly Chief Justice Ternus is an effective leader, and that shows in her ability to achieve such unified outcomes.  It will be interesting to see--once Iowa fills the three open positions on the Court--whether such unified decisions will continue to come down from the Iowa Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Marshall's title was difficult to discern because all the titles can be construed to describe any of the other justices.  However, she is the quintessential revolutionary.  Chief Justice Marshall grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era before eventually immigrating to America to escape persecution.  As such, and in her own words, she has a deeply personal and ultimately unique perspective of the freedoms we offer in the United States.  THat being the case, I felt she was truly revolutionary because she asked us to consider what it would be like to imagine not growing up with the freedoms and protections offered in this country.  To imagine such things is revolutionary because it is made with the hope that we: 1)consider that alternative life and 2) begin to to value our own freedoms more than we would normally.  The deep internal change will have exponential effects when young lawyers factor this into account when dealing with clients, litigating cases, and advocating for rights.  

In conclusion, the symposium was a wonderful event, as was the dinner with Chief Justices Ternus and Toal.  This was most likely a once in a lifetime experience.  These great women are truly great chiefs, and it was incredible to have the opportunity to learn from them.