Jury Splits on Claims in Case Alleging Liberal Bias in Hiring at Iowa Law School

U. of Iowa

Teresa R. Wagner alleged that she had been turned down for jobs at the U. of Iowa College of Law because of her conservative views. Her lawyers have not said what their next steps will be.
October 24, 2012

[Updated, 10/25/2012, 2:15 a.m.]

In a case in which the University of Iowa College of Law stood accused of political bias for refusing to hire an instructor known for her conservative views, a jury found that the plaintiff, Teresa R. Wagner, did not suffer infringement of her First Amendment rights. The jury deadlocked, however, over a second claim, that Ms. Wagner was denied her equal-protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

Reports by the Associated Press initially said the entire case had ended in mistrial, but the news agency issued a correction on Wednesday night after it received clarification on the outcome from Judge Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Southern Iowa. Judge Pratt presided over the trial, held in Davenport, Iowa, but after the case went to the jury, he returned to Des Moines, and a U.S. magistrate judge, Thomas J. Shields, oversaw final details of the proceedings.

The AP initially reported that Judge Shields had declared a mistrial in court on Wednesday afternoon. The judge later determined that the initial information he gave in court was incorrect and that the jury had reached a verdict on one of the claims.

Ms. Wagner, a part-time associate director of the law school's writing center, brought the case against Carolyn Jones, an Iowa law professor who was the school's dean when it rejected Ms. Wagner's applications for open positions for tenure-track law professors and adjunct instructors.

The mixed conclusions in the case followed a weeklong trial and about two and a half days of jury deliberation.

Ms. Wagner's lawyer, Stephen T. Fieweger, declined on Wednesday to comment on the day's developments or his client's legal plans.

A spokesman for the University of Iowa, which has declined to comment on the case while the lawsuit is pending, did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

In the lawsuit, which she first filed in 2009, Ms. Wagner accused Ms. Jones of discriminating against her because of her conservative beliefs and her affiliation with conservative organizations, in violation of her First Amendment rights of political belief and association.

Having unsuccessfully applied for a tenure-track position in 2006 and for adjunct positions on five separate occasions from early 2007 through early 2009, Ms. Wagner argued that the real obstacle she faced in seeking such jobs was not any lack of academic qualifications, but faculty animus as a result of her past work with conservative advocacy groups.

Her lawsuit was briefly derailed last year, when a federal district-court judge dismissed the litigation on the grounds that Ms. Jones had immunity as an individual and a university official. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit revived the lawsuit, by reversing the lower court's decision to grant immunity to Ms. Jones in her personal capacity.

Its decision held that Ms. Wagner had provided sufficient evidence to infer that the decisions not to hire her had been motivated by illegal viewpoint bias. When the case went to trial last week, her lawyer, Mr. Fieweger, urged the jury to award her more than $400,000 in damages, which included lost pay and benefits.

Partisan Leanings

Ms. Wagner, who graduated from the Iowa law school in 1993, began working heavily with conservative advocacy groups two years later, after moving to Washington, D.C. She spent several years working with the National Right to Life Committee, which opposes abortion and euthanasia, and the Family Research Council, which promotes conservative views on social issues.

During her time in Washington she also spent two years as an instructor at George Mason University's law school, where she taught introductory classes in legal research, writing, and analysis, as well as a graduate-level class on medical ethics and the law.

Ms. Wagner returned to the University of Iowa in August 2006, as a part-time associate director of a center at the law school that trains students in legal writing. That same month, the university advertised for two full-time positions as instructors in the law school's program in legal analysis, writing, and research, stating that applicants should have previously demonstrated success in teaching.

Of the 50 applicants for the two jobs, Ms. Wagner was one of five who were called back for a second, full-day interview. Her lawsuit alleges that John Carlson, an associate dean of the law school, advised her before the second interview to conceal that she had previously applied for a position at an institution with a conservative reputation, the Ave Maria School of Law.

Her lawsuit also alleges that a second associate dean there, Eric G. Andersen, was unable to provide her with an answer when she asked if her conservative views would be held against her in the hiring process.

One of the Iowa law school's 50 faculty members is a registered Republican, the lawsuit states, while at least 46 others are Democrats.

In January 2007 the law school ended up selecting another candidate for one of the two open tenure-track jobs and choosing not to fill the other position. Ms. Wagner similarly met with rejection in applying for open positions for adjunct instructors.

Associated Press coverage of the trial said much of the testimony focused on the actions of one law professor, Randall Bezanson, who was regarded as the faculty's primary opponent of Ms. Wagner's hiring when she sought the tenure-track job. Mr. Bezanson had been a clerk for Justice Harry A. Blackmun when Justice Blackmun wrote the U.S. Supreme Court's majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, holding that women have a right to abortion until the fetus is viable. Mr. Bezanson had written tributes to Justice Blackmun's abortion jurisprudence, as well as articles advocating abortion rights.

Mr. Bezanson had testified of hearing Ms. Wagner's conservatism mentioned at the faculty meeting in which her application was voted down, but he also had testified that no faculty member would "be stupid enough" to cite politics as the reason for turning down an applicant, the Associated Press reported. The jury asked to see a transcript of his testimony while it deliberated on Tuesday, but Judge Pratt rejected that request.

Airing Suspicions

One key piece of evidence Ms. Wagner's lawyers offered on her behalf was an e-mail that Mr. Carlson, the associate dean, wrote to Dean Jones in January 2007. In it, Mr. Carlson expressed confusion over the faculty's unwillingness to vote to give Ms. Wagner a second position that she had sought, as a part-time adjunct instructor. Saying "it seemed that there might be an undercurrent of opposition even to that," Mr. Carlson told Ms. Jones:

Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don't actually think that, but I'm worried that I may be missing something.

The candidate who beat out Ms. Wagner for the open tenure-track job ended up resigning a year later as a result of poor performance, law-school employees testified. Ms. Wagner's legal team sought to portray applicants who were awarded the part-time adjunct positions she had sought as similarly less qualified.

George A. Carroll, an assistant state attorney general who represented the law school in the case, argued in court that Ms. Jones had done nothing wrong in accepting the faculty's recommendation not to hire Ms. Wagner, and that Ms. Wagner herself had injected her politics into the process, by bringing her political views to the attention of a faculty committee and later suing for political discrimination.

"Mrs. Wagner is imposing her political beliefs on the University of Iowa in an unacceptable way," Mr. Carroll told the jury. "To submit that, 'You were a registered Democrat, you couldn't be fair-minded to others,' I reject that."

The law school's lawyers argued that Ms. Wagner had disqualified herself from the tenure-track position by performing poorly in a January 2007 interview. Dean Jones and three current or former professors at the law school testified in court or in videotaped depositions that Ms. Wagner had said she would not fulfill a key part of the job description: teaching legal analysis.

"Consistently, her answer was that analysis was not part of the job," testified one of the law professors, Christina Bohannan.

Ms. Wagner denied having expressed an unwillingness to teach analysis, and showed jurors references to her plans to teach the subject in the outline she made for herself for the faculty interview. Mr. Fieweger, her lawyer, sought to sow doubts in the law school's assertions by noting that the school had videotaped its interview with Ms. Wagner, but erased the tape shortly after turning her down for the tenure-track job.

Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group that frequently defends conservative college faculty members against what it characterizes as widespread liberal bias in academe, had said while the jury was deliberating that it is "really tough" to prove accusations of political or ideological discrimination in faculty hiring decisions.

"Colleges and universities are very good at covering up their tracks," he said. In addition, he said, "the judiciary has historically been very deferential to colleges and universities on the grounds of academic freedom."