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Iowa Supreme Court hears arguments in Branstad appeal

DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in the appeal of the discrimination lawsuit verdict against former Governor Terry Branstad.

The jury found Branstad pushed out Workers Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act because Godfrey was gay.

The attorney for the state, Debra Hulett, says Branstad reduced Godfrey’s salary because of performance in the job and was in his right to do so. “The Legislature didn’t prohibit a governor from reducing a political appointee’s salary within an authorized the governor’s salary establishing decision,” Hulett says.

Hulett says there was no evidence that Branstad was not allowed to make the salary decision. “The plaintiff’s case at trial was focused on proving the governor’s rational wrong — as if there is a right or wrong answer to the governor’s salary establishing decisions,” Hulett says. Justice Appel asked, “Didn’t they attempt to show that it was based on sexual orientation. Hulett responded, “If you want to get to sexual orientation, there is no evidence in the record that the governor knew the plaintiff’s sexual orientation.”

Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, says the defense reading of the statute is too broad. “The governor of the state of Iowa could announce that all public officials — everybody that I appoint — is going to be a white male. There would be no legal remedy. That cannot be the law of the state of Iowa,” Conlin says.

Conlin says Godfrey was in his position when Branstad was re-elected. “The governor did not lower his salary because of performance. The governor didn’t know a thing about his performance. All he knew is what some of his big contributors said about decisions that they lost,” according to Conlin “The governor lowered Chris Godfrey’s salary by one third in order to force him to bludgeon him, to make him leave.”

Justice Edward Mansfield asked Conlin — even if the governor was wrong about performance — isn’t it still his right to make the salary decision. “But counsel, doesn’t the salary act sort of set a collar on what the governor is permitted to do here? and didn’t he operate within that collar?” Mansfield says. “Yes he operated within that collar, but he operated for illegal reasons. He operated in violation of due process of law and in violation of the Civil Rights Act,” Conlin responded.

Conlin also argued that Godfrey was operating in a quasi-judicial role that the governor should not be allowed to interfere with. Hulett in her rebuttal, says the action was allowed by the law.

“To establish retaliation under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, the plaintiff must establish that the decision-maker was motivated by the plaintiff’s protected activity under the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” Hulett says. “And here, the protected activity, in this case, occurred after the salary establishing decision was communicated to Commissioner Godfrey. That is when the plaintiff and his supporters objected to the decision and published his sexual orientation.”

She also disputed the quasi-judicial argument — saying Godfrey’s position was not different than many others who face salary decisions. “That is a policy-making role. That is not the role of a deputy commissioner or an administrative law judge presiding over a hearing, taking in facts, and considering the facts, and applying the law in a written decision. Final agency decisions are different,” Hulett says.

Hulett says the decision on whether Branstad made the right decision on the salary is up to the voters and this case was an election issue and Branstad was elected again.

The jury awarded Godfrey $1.5 million in the 2019 ruling. The Supreme Court will issue a ruling at a later date.

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