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Law school dean faces trial on anti-Republican bias

Only one out of 50 professors at the University of Iowa College of Law is a registered Republican, so it’s not exactly a stretch to suspect that political ideology might have something to do with the school’s hiring decisions.

Thanks to a decision by the 8th Circuit this week, one conservative activist will have the chance to prove to a jury that the school’s former dean violated the First Amendment by denying her a job based on her political beliefs.

The case involves Teresa Wagner, a registered Republican who is a long-time activist for socially conservative causes. In 1993, Wagner graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law. She later moved to Washington, D.C. to work with the National Right to Life Committee, the well-known anti-abortion organization, and the Family Research Council, another conservative advocacy group. 

While in Washington, Wagner also taught legal writing at the George Mason University School of Law.

In August 2006, Wagner returned to the University of Iowa College of Law to work part-time in the school’s writing center. But Wagner was on the lookout for a full-time job and fortune seemed to smile on her when the school advertised that it had openings for two full-time legal writing instructors.

Given that she was an alumnus with prior experience as a legal writing teacher, Wagner figured that she had a good shot at getting hired.

Yes, the school had the reputation as being one of the most liberal law schools in the country, but Wagner didn’t seriously figure that the fact that she was a rock-ribbed Republican would be held against her. When she applied for the job, Wagner unabashedly listed on her resume her work with the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council.

Wagner successfully passed through the early phases of the job application process, being selected as one of the five finalists for the two legal writing openings.

But her job fortunes experienced a dramatic turnabout on Jan. 25, 2007, when her application went before the entire school’s faculty in a meeting with then Dean Carolyn Jones.

The faculty refused to give its stamp of approval to Wagner, instead voting only to recommend the hiring of another job applicant with self-proclaimed liberal leanings. This seemed rather odd because the applicant the faculty liked had never practiced law, had no legal publications, and had no prior successful teaching experience.

Dean Jones readily accepted the faculty’s non-recommendation of Wagner, informing her the next day via e-mail that the school would not be hiring her.

A couple of days later, Wagner was tipped off that Professor Randall Bezanson had been the primary opponent to her hiring at the faculty meeting. Coincidentally, Professor Bezanson had clerked for Justice Blackmun around the time Roe v. Wade was decided. Apart from spending a lifetime deifying Justice Blackmun and his abortion jurisprudence, Professor Bezanson is a staunch pro-choice advocate himself. 

Professor Bezanson in a later deposition had a failure of memory regarding whether Wagner’s politics were actually discussed when the school’s faculty considered her job application.

In any event, when Wagner later applied for other instructor jobs, she appeared to be butting up against a stone wall. Wagner applied four additional times for an adjunct position in January 2007, March 2007, June 2008, and January 2009. The school rejected Wagner’s applications each time without even affording her the opportunity to interview for the positions.

Fed up with the rejection letters, Wagner filed a §1983 suit, alleging that Dean Jones discriminated against her in violation of her First Amendment rights.

A district court granted summary judgment to Dean Jones based on qualified immunity.

But on Wednesday, the 8th Circuit revived Wagner’s lawsuit.

First, the court decided that Wagner’s allegations sufficiently stated a political discrimination claim under the First Amendment.

The court noted that Wagner had presented evidence that only one out of 50 faculty members at the school is a registered Republican and that, prior to her job interview, an associate dean had warned her to conceal the fact that she had previously been offered a job at a conservative law school.

The court further noted evidence that “someone” mentioned that Wagner held conservative beliefs at the faculty meeting to discuss Wagner’s job application. There was also evidence that, the day after the faculty vote, an associate dean sent Dean Jones an email inquiring whether Wagner’s politics had been a consideration.

“When the facts are viewed in their totality with all reasonable inferences being drawn in favor of Wagner, we believe that Wagner has presented sufficient evidence for a fact finder to infer that Dean Jones’s repeated decisions not to hire Wagner were in part motivated by Wagner’s constitutionally protected First Amendment rights of political belief and association,” the court said.

Dean Jones argued that Wagner’s political beliefs had nothing to do with her decision not to hire her for the full-time position. Jones contended that she routinely adopted the faculty’s recommendations in hiring matters and, besides, there were valid concerns that Wagner did not understand the analysis portion of the law school’s legal writing program.

But the court concluded that a jury must decide whether the dean’s explanations held water.

Further, the court found that there was sufficient evidence that the dean violated “clearly established” constitutional rights. 

“By her own admission, Dean Jones had the ability to hire someone whom the faculty had not recommended but chose not to do so. Dean Jones’s conduct confirmed the faculty’s recommendations, which a jury ultimately could conclude violated the First Amendment. …

“Consequently, Dean Jones has not shown that a reasonable university dean in her position would have believed that failing to hire Wagner was lawful in light of clearly established law,” the court said. (Wagner v. Jones)

The 8th Circuit’s decision is a nice little victory for those who are tired of the preachy liberalism that is the normal fare at most of today’s law schools.

No, Wagner may not ultimately prevail in her challenge to the status quo at the University of Iowa College of Law, but the fact that she could get her case before a jury should serve as a shot across the bow for all law schools in their treatment of job applicants with diverse political views.

– Pat Murphy


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