Iowa Supreme Court 2016-17 Preview: Can Iowa courts create damage claims for constitutional violations?

By: Rox Laird on September 2nd, 2016

A long-running legal battle over Gov. Terry Branstad’s effort to remove a top state regulatory official could take on a historic constitutional dimension at the Iowa Supreme Court.

The court on Sept. 14 is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case of Christopher Godfrey against the state, Gov. Terry Branstad and five other top state officials. Godfrey claims the governor’s effort to remove Godfrey from his position as Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner violated his civil rights and his constitutional rights.

When he returned to office in 2011, Branstad sought Godfrey’s removal based on complaints from business leaders that Godfrey had not been even-handed in handling cases involving workers’ compensation claims for job-related illnesses and injuries.

Godfrey refused to resign voluntarily, so Branstad cut the commissioner’s pay from $112,069 to $73,250, the minimum allowed by law. Godfrey has since left the job to take a similar position in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Department of Labor, but his legal action against state officials continues to work its way through the courts here in Iowa.

Godfrey was appointed by former Gov. Tom Vilsack and re-appointed by former Gov. Chet Culver – both Democrats. He argues that Republican Governor Branstad’s campaign to force Godfrey to resign was political retribution. Godfrey, who is gay, also contends his treatment was based on his sexual orientation.

The issue before the Iowa Supreme Court is whether Godfrey can seek civil damages through a claim that the state violated his rights of due process and equal protection guaranteed by the Iowa Constitution.

The Iowa Attorney General argues in a brief on behalf of the state that there is no statutory authority for bringing a damage suit under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Iowa Constitution. Instead, suits for money damages must be authorized by an act of the General Assembly. The Legislature did that in creating the Iowa Civil Rights Act, state points out, which provides for claims such as Godfrey’s.

Godfrey argues, however, that the Court should hold that the Iowa Constitution is “self-executing” in protecting individual rights – that is, it requires no enabling legislation from the General Assembly. It is, he argues, “illogical to suppose that the Iowa Constitution, the supreme law of Iowa which grants fundamental rights to all citizens of the state, fails to provide any means for injured individuals to assert their constitutional rights in a court of law.”

The state argues in response that Iowa’s constitution was not designed to be self-executing: “If the drafters of the Iowa Constitution had intended the Iowa Constitution to be self-executing, they would have said so, rather than expressly stating that ‘[t]he general assembly shall pass all laws necessary to carry this constitution into effect’.”

If Godfrey succeeds in this appeal, it would not only enhance his own case but it would open the door to a new class of damage suits rooted in the Iowa Constitution rather than in statutory authority created by the General Assembly.

That would be a mistake, according to two amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) briefs filed in Godfrey’s appeal – one for the Iowa County Attorney’s Association and another on behalf of the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool and the Iowa Association of School Boards. The briefs argue that the issue (whether to allow damages actions against public offices for violation of the constitution) is a question of public policy that, under separation-of-powers principles, should be left to the legislature.

Meanwhile, Godfrey’s four-year-old lawsuit in Polk County District Court and a parallel suit in federal court in Des Moines are on hold awaiting resolution of this Supreme Court appeal.

[Disclosure: Nyemaster Goode attorney and On Brief contributor Ryan Koopmans filed the amicus brief on behalf of the Iowa League of Cities, the Iowa State Association of Counties, the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool and the Iowa Association of School Boards.] 

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On Brief

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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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