BOSTON — President John F. Kennedy's only surviving child celebrated 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 on Monday also recognized 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 presented 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.
The three judges received a sterling silver ship's lantern symbolizing a beacon of hope. The award, designed by Caroline 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.
Ternus, Baker and Streit were among seven justices who 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 to avoid dragging the judiciary into politics.
"We recognized that opposition would surface. We were not naive," Baker said at the award ceremony. "Had we chosen to form campaign committees and actively campaigned, we would have tacitly admitted that we were what we claimed not to be – politicians."
That decision by the three judges was courageous in light of the divisive campaign that was unleashed against them, Kennedy said.
"For judges to be targeted for an individual decision is really something that threatens the liberty of all Americans and that's what happened in this case. So the award is intended to both to honor their decision and also make people more aware of the dangers and the threat to an independent judiciary, which is something all Americans should value." Kennedy told The Associated Press.
"The bedrock of our democracy is the rule of law and that means we have to have an independent judiciary, judges who can make decisions independent of the political winds that are blowing," said Kennedy, who is a lawyer.
The danger of politicizing the judiciary 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.
"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.
Ternus, the former chief justice, said: "Efforts to intimidate the judiciary and to turn judges into politicians or theologians in robes undermine fair and impartial justice and will, over time, destroy the ability and willingness of judges to do their duty as faithful guardians of the constitution."
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 also honored 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, was in Boston to accept the award. The Denver native, who now lives in Baltimore, remains the U.S. envoy to Syria.
"Ambassador Ford has really gone out of his way to redefine the American role (in the international arena) and the importance of courageous American diplomats to support aspirations for freedoms around the world," Kennedy said.
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.
"I think one of my father's great legacies is the people that he inspired and the generation that he inspired transformed America through civil rights, women's rights, equal justice, and they've passed that on to their children and grandchildren. And I think he also really changed the way America looks at the world and the world looks at America – and I think that, internationally, he's still an inspiration," Kennedy said. "And so that's something that means a great deal to me and that we celebrate every day."