(CN) – The Iowa Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Friday that the state’s former workers’ compensation commissioner has a right to sue current and former government officials over claims they discriminated against him because he is gay.
The ruling marks the first time the state’s high court has recognized residents’ right to sue government officials for alleged violations of civil liberties under the Iowa Constitution.
The Iowa Supreme Court noted that it has a long tradition of citing the state’s founding document to recognize civil rights, dating back to its first published opinion in 1839 saying a freed slave in Iowa could not be forced to return to his owner in another state. In 2009, the court recognized the right of same-sex marriage under the equal-protection clause of the Iowa Constitution, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
In one of his first acts after he was elected in 2010, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad demanded the resignation of Christopher Godfrey, the state’s workers’ compensation commissioner. The governor cited business leaders who said the commission’s rulings tilted too heavily in favor of workers.
The demand created a standoff and led to five years of litigation.
The players’ roles in the Godfrey case have changed since it began – Branstad recently resigned to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China, and Godfrey also moved to Washington, D.C. to serve on the Labor Department’s Employees’ Compensation Appeal Board – but it has continued to wind its way through the Iowa courts.
Godfrey sued Branstad after the then-governor allegedly slashed his salary from $112,070 to the statutory minimum of $73,250 in what Godfrey claims was an effort to force him to quit.
Godfrey argued that he was pressured to quit because he is gay, and that the commissioner’s quasi-judicial position was intended by the Legislature to be insulated from partisan politics.
He brought his claims in Polk County District Court under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, naming the state, Branstad and five other state officials as defendants.
Godfrey also cited due process and equal protection provisions of the Iowa Constitution, claiming his reputation was damaged and his property interest in his salary was deprived because of partisan politics and/or his sexual orientation.
The district court dismissed those claims, saying there is no right under the Iowa Constitution to bring a direct action against the state for monetary damages unless the Iowa General Assembly has specifically created one.
But the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed Friday in a 4-3 decision that split the seven-member court three ways.
The four-member majority ruled that there is a private right of action against the state under the Iowa Constitution.
Justice Brent Appel – joined by Justices Daryl Hecht and David Wiggins, and in part by Chief Justice Mark Cady – wrote that the district court improperly dismissed Godfrey’s claims on his property interest and reputation claims.
Appel noted that, in 1857, the framers of the Iowa Constitution put the Bill of Rights at the very beginning of the document, signaling the importance of individual liberty against encroachment by the state government.
“If these individual rights in the very first article of the Iowa Constitution are to be meaningful, they must be effectively enforced,” he wrote, saying the judiciary has a duty to protect them. “It would be ironic indeed if the enforcement of individual rights and liberties in the Iowa Constitution, designed to ensure that basic rights and liberties were immune from majoritarian impulses, were dependent on legislative action for enforcement.”
Appel added, “A constitutional violation is different from an ordinary dispute between two private parties… When a constitutional violation is involved, more than mere allocation of risks and compensation is implicated. The emphasis is not simply on compensating an individual who may have been harmed by illegal conduct, but also upon deterring unconstitutional conduct in the future.”
In a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Chief Justice Cady joined the majority’s opinion on the property interest and reputation claims but said the Iowa Civil Rights Act is an adequate remedy for Godfrey’s equal-protection claim related to his sexual orientation and that he “would not recognize an independent constitutional claim under these circumstances.”
“Godfrey alleges the State discriminated against him on the basis of his sexual orientation by harassing him and reducing his salary. These claims are covered by the ICRA,” Cady wrote. “Thus, Godfrey may only assert an independent claim under the Iowa Constitution… if he can establish the remedy provided by the ICRA is inadequate to vindicate his constitutional rights.”
Cady also said punitive damages are not available to plaintiffs like Godfrey under the ICRA.
Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager dissented, finding the court moved into dangerous territory by recognizing for the first time a constitutional right of action against government officials under the Iowa Constitution.
Mansfield wrote that the majority’s ruling was a radical departure from the court’s tradition that damage claims require either legislative authorization or a basis in the common law of torts or contracts.
“In 1965, our general assembly passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” he wrote. “Today, we learn that the general assembly need not have bothered. Apparently, people who believed they had a civil rights claim against Iowa state or local officials always had a money-damages cause of action, with both actual and punitive damages available. It just took from 1857 until 2017 for someone to figure it out.”
Mansfield said majority’s holding will have a limited impact on Godfrey’s case but otherwise will have far-reaching implications.
For example, he wrote, “I anticipate many claims from current and former inmates seeking damages for wrongful incarceration.”
“The lead opinion amounts to a judicial declaration of defiance,” Mansfield said. “The lead opinion signals that it will not be constrained by anything the legislature does and can devise any and all damage remedies it deems suitable and proper for alleged constitutional violations. This principle seems to lack any boundary.”
A spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller declined to comment on the ruling.
Godfrey’s lawyer, Roxanne Conlin, did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.