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The Wall Street Journal Profiles Political Discrimination Case

Mar 30

Eighth Circuit Revives Discrimination Suit against Law School Dean

By: Joe Palazzolo

A woman who alleges she was denied a job at the University of Iowa College of Law because of her conservative politics can proceed with a discrimination lawsuit against the school’s former dean, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

Teresa Wagner was a part-time associate director in the law school’s writing center in 2006 when she applied for a full-time instructor’s position. Wagner, a registered Republican who has “actively advocated for socially conservative causes,” according to the court opinion, went through a lengthy interview process and received several recommendations within the college, but the faculty ultimately voted to hire a less-experienced instructor.

Carolyn Jones, the dean at the time, adopted the faculty’s recommendation.

Wagner sued Jones in 2009, alleging Jones discriminated against her in violation of Wagner’s First Amendment rights of political belief and association. A federal district judge in Davenport tossed the case a year later, concluding that Wagner offered “no evidence whatsoever that Jones, in accepting the faculty recommendation, was motivated by animus against Wagner’s politics and her association with conservative organizations.”

The Eighth Circuit on Tuesday reinstated the lawsuit, finding that there was enough of a dispute over whether Jones “would have made the same hiring decisions in the absence of Wagner’s political affiliations and beliefs” to justify the claims.

Ryan Koopmans, an associate at Nyemaster Goode in Des Moines, has more on the opinion here at On Brief, a blog that focuses on appellate cases in Iowa.

Law Blog SCOTUS Bonus: According the Eighth Circuit’s opinion, the “primary, vocal opponent” to hiring  Wagner was Professor Randall Bezanson, a former clerk to Justice Harry A. Blackmun during the time Roe v. Wade was written. Benzanson has written tributes to Justice Blackmun and his abortion jurisprudence and published articles advocating abortion rights, the court said.

Wagner, on the other hand, previously worked with the National Right to Life Committee, which opposes abortion, and the Family Research Council, which advocates for conservative social views.

We’ve reached out to Jones and Bezanson for comment.

A lawyer for Wagner, Stephen Fieweger, said in an email that he and Wagner were “truly satisfied” with the Eighth Circuit’s decision. Fieweger is also handling an age discrimination case against the law school that is slated to go to trial in February.

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