Court overturns bias verdict against ex-Iowa governor

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – Reversal historic jury verdict of $ 1.5 million, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that former Governor Terry Branstad had not unlawfully discriminated against or retaliated against a gay state official.

The court found no evidence that Branstad knew Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey was gay when his administration attempted to push Godfrey out of state government in 2011.

While Godfrey’s status as one of Iowa’s first openly gay public officials is widely known, it is “pure speculation” that Branstad was ever aware of it, Judge Christopher McDonald wrote. The evidence does not support the conclusion that Branstad was “anti-gay” because he had employed other homosexuals, he added.

The ruling overturned a 2019 verdict in which jurors found Branstad and his former legal counsel violated Iowa civil rights law by discriminating and retaliating against Godfrey because of his sexual orientation. Jurors also found that they had violated Godfrey’s rights because of his Democratic Party affiliation and awarded Godfrey $ 1.5 million in damages for emotional distress.

Wednesday’s ruling ordered a court to dismiss all of Godfrey’s claims, ending a decade-long case that took three trips to the Iowa Supreme Court and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.

Godfrey called the decision an “absolutely bizarre decision” that undermines legal protections for gays and lesbians. He said the court ignored the findings of jurors who had heard six weeks of testimony, including testimony from Branstad and others.

Godfrey said the decision was the logical result of the shift to the right of the court, which began after Iowa voters in 2010 removed three judges who had voted to legalize same-sex marriage the year before.

“It’s a results-based decision,” said Godfrey, who left state government in 2014 for a job with the US Department of Labor. “The policy was injected into the court and that’s what we have.”

A spokesperson for Governor Kim Reynolds, who was Branstad’s lieutenant governor and supported the appeal of the verdict, called the decision a “complete and utter victory for the rule of law and the taxpayers of Iowa” . In addition to not having to pay the $ 1.5 million in damages, the state will not have to cover a judge’s prize of $ 3.1 million for Godfrey’s legal fees.

Even before the call, a Republican-controlled state panel had spent $ 2.9 million to pay Branstad’s lawyers over the years.

“This partisan lawsuit was nothing less than an attempt to tarnish the character and reputation of Governor Branstad,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, who supported the call and praised Wednesday’s decision.

First elected in 1982, Branstad became the longest-serving governor in US history and later served as American ambassador to China during the Trump administration.

The dispute dates back to Branstad’s successful return to governorship in 2010 as a pro-business Republican who opposed same-sex marriage. After ousting Democratic Governor Chet Culver, Branstad called for the resignation of dozens of appointees, including Godfrey.

Godfrey had been reappointed by Culver and confirmed by the Iowa Senate for a six-year term as commissioner, a post supposedly isolated from politics. After Godfrey rejected several resignation requests, Branstad reduced his annual salary from $ 40,000 to $ 72,000, the lowest allowed by the legislature for the position.

Godfrey argued that his sexual orientation was a motivator for his harsh treatment by Branstad, who ran alongside a 2010 Iowa GOP platform that opposed equal rights for gays and lesbians. He said the unfavorable treatment and exclusion continued for years, including the budget cuts Branstad targeted on his office.

Branstad testified that he wanted Godfrey to go because powerful business interests had complained about some of its decisions granting benefits to injured workers. He said the pay cut was at his discretion as governor and that he only learned that Godfrey was gay later.

Six of the seven judges approved the result, including two that Branstad appointed in 2011 to replace judges who were ousted from the same-sex marriage ruling. Two concurring judges said Godfrey should not have been able to sue under Iowa civil rights law as a politically appointed person.

Partially dissenting judge Brent Appel said he would have referred to the jury’s finding that Branstad knew Godfrey was gay, but ordered further proceedings.

Godfrey said he still cherishes the jury’s verdict in 2019, saying they “did me justice.” He said he felt respected in his work in the federal government and planned to attend a White House event on Wednesday to mark Pride Month.

“It’s just too bad that Iowa can’t value people the same way,” he said. “,

Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press

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