Iowa Supreme Court justices file into the chamber March 24, 2021. (Screen shot from Iowa Judicial Branch livestream)
The Iowa Supreme Court chamber is a magnificent venue for the seven justices who referee the thorniest legal questions in our state.
The courtroom seats a few dozen spectators. Last week, it’s a shame there weren’t thousands of people listening to the justices’ questions and the lawyers’ responses in the appeal of Christopher Godfrey’s lawsuit against former Gov. Terry Branstad.
There is much riding on the decision the Supreme Court will make this spring. The stakes go beyond the district court jury verdict that taxpayers must pay the former Iowa workers compensation commissioner $1.5 million in damages for Branstad’s decision in 2011 to cut his salary by one-third.
That occurred, according to the lawyers for the two sides, either because Godfrey is gay and because a handful of Branstad business supporters disliked Godfrey’s decisions in cases involving workers hurt on the job, or because the governor was merely exercising his administrative discretion as the state’s chief executive.
The Godfrey case centers on the limits to a governor’s powers. All Iowans should be concerned even if they have never heard of Godfrey and know nothing about the worker compensation commissioner’s duties.
The case is important, not because it involves Branstad. It is important because it shows a potential scope of authority for Iowa governors that should bother Republicans and Democrats alike.
Justice Brent Appel posed the question to Debra Hulett, the lawyer for Branstad and the state of Iowa, that went to the heart of this. Hulett said a governor can decide whether to cut the pay of an appointee for a variety of reasons. That can include the person’s job performance or “anything else that’s relevant.”
Appel interjected: “Anything else? Really? Can he consider race?”
“Well, he didn’t consider race in this case,” Hulett responded.
Justice Christopher McDonald asked, “Can the governor use the salary mechanism as a way to pressure or to try to force him out of office?”
Referring to Godfrey, Hulett replied, “Governor Branstad felt that his policy-making warranted a reduction in salary, and that is what he did, and that’s an appropriate exercise of discretion in his role as governor of the state.”
Appel said governors have “a fair amount of discretion, of course, but it is not unlimited.”
Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, picked up on that: “There has to be a bright line over which the governor, or anybody, cannot step.
“It is a surprise to me that the defendants would come before the court and insist that the governor can make decisions about executive-appointed officers on the basis of race, on the basis of sexual orientation, and that you, and the jury, no one can interfere with that judgment,” Conlin said.
“The governor of the state of Iowa could announce, according to the defendants, ‘All public officials — everybody I appoint — is going to be a white male,’ and there would be no legal remedy. That cannot be the law of the state of Iowa,” she said.
Hulett countered that the legal remedy rests with voters.
“The remedy for Governor Branstad’s decision, if one is needed at all, is accountability to the electorate rather than a jury trial and damages,” she said. “And that was resolved in 2014, when — with this case part of the public discourse being discussed — Iowa voters re-elected Governor Branstad.”
Hulett added, “A governor that engaged in the type of conduct Ms. Conlin described would probably not get re-elected.”
The key word in that analysis is “probably.” And do Iowans really want a governor — whether Republican or Democrat — to wield such power, basically unfettered, between elections?
While Branstad had the support of thousands of Iowans, and while many of them may not want a gay man occupying a key state government job, how would those Iowans react if the tables were turned in the future?
What if that governor were a Democrat who did not want evangelicals in key state government jobs? How would Branstad supporters view that sort of power for a governor? How would they react if a Democrat tried to use the pressure of huge pay cuts to try to force evangelical officials out?
I’m betting they would not be pleased. I’m confident they would not think waiting four years for the next election would be an acceptable “solution.”
Here’s an important footnote:
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, Branstad’s treatment of Godfrey has been hugely expensive. And taxpayers are footing the bill.
So far, taxpayers have paid the state’s lawyers about $3 million. That expense will climb after Hulett and her partners are paid for preparing for last week’s hearing.
If the jury verdict stands, the taxpayers will be on the hook not just for the $1.5 million verdict. They also will have to compensate Conlin for representing Godfrey — a cost that will be comparable to what Branstad’s lawyers are paid.
Just think, taxpayers may have to pony up $8 million or more — over a pay dispute that involved $150,000 cut from Godfrey’s salary for the four years remaining in his six-year term.
Talk about embarrassing.
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