Divided Iowa Supreme Court keeps county attorney on the job, despite sexual harassment complaints

By: Rox Laird on July 12th, 2018

Van Buren County Attorney Abraham Watkins was removed from office by a District Court judge who ruled that Watkins “engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment” of female employees.

The court record reciting Watkins’ sexually explicit behavior included asking a female employee about her vagina, complaining that her breasts were distracting, showing her nude photos of his wife, discussing his marital sex life and on more than one occasion appearing in the office in boxer briefs.

Reviewing the case on appeal, the Iowa Supreme Court agreed that sexual harassment is unacceptable, but it concluded in a 4-3 decision that Watkins’ behavior did not warrant a court order removing a public official elected by the people.

The justices on June 29 issued three separate opinions covering nearly 70 pages that reveal how the Court was torn between respecting the role of the electorate, not judges, to say who is fit for office while not seeming to minimize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Three justices – Bruce Zager, writing for himself, Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman – concluded that despite Watkins’ “morally reprehensible” behavior it was not enough to remove him from office.

Three justices – Chief Justice Mark Cady, writing in a dissent joined by Daryl Hecht, and David Wiggins writing in a separate dissent – concluded that Watkins willfully created a sexually hostile work environment for female employees on his staff and that he deserved to be removed from office.

Justice Brent Appel supplied the deciding vote in a separate opinion in which he disagreed with Zager’s reasoning while concurring that, however repulsive, Watkins’ actions fell short of clearing the high hurdle for a judicial decision removing a public official from office.

The Legislature gave the courts authority to remove a public official from office for, among other things, “willful misconduct,” and the pivotal question before the Court in this case was whether Watkins’ misconduct was “willful.”

The Iowa Supreme Court in a 1913 case defined “willfully” for purposes of removal to mean a public official who acts “intentionally, deliberately, with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty.”

Zager wrote that it is not a question of whether a “reasonable person would find that the public official acted contrary to his or her duties or even unlawfully” but a question of the public official’s “subjective intent to act with a bad or evil purpose” in committing wrongdoing.

“As morally reprehensible as we find Watkins’s behavior,” Zager wrote, “this is not the standard by which we need to analyze whether the State has met its high burden to establish whether Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office by creating a sexually hostile work environment. We are a court of law, not a court of public opinion.”

Chief Justice Cady disagreed, faulting the plurality opinion for looking at the case from Watkins’ perspective, not the employee’s: “Today’s decision is intimately tied to a bygone era of law that shielded men who knew better, at the expense of their female employees, who were required to abandon their jobs or forced to accept harassment as a condition of employment.”

Justice Appel wrote in his concurring opinion that while he agreed with much of Cady’s opinion, he concluded that Watkins’ behavior did not meet the “extraordinarily demanding standard” for removing an elected official from office.

“We have required what amounts to ‘specific intent’ to do wrong in a criminal or quasi-criminal way and the need for heroic action by the court to save the day,” Appel wrote. “In the end, I conclude that Watkins’s behavior approaches, but does not cross, the heroic and stringent penal or quasi-criminal standard for removal articulated in our historic caselaw.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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