Godfrey court decision good for Iowans

Iowa Supreme Court Justices narrowly decided last week that citizens can sue government officials who violate their rights.

The 68-page decision, which addresses a portion of an employment dispute case brought by former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris J. Godfrey against former Gov. Terry Branstad, Gov. Kim Reynolds and four more Branstad administration officials, was handed down June 30. It reverses a lower court decision to stall the case and, by doing so, establishes a landmark pathway for citizens to seek monetary damages from the government and government officials for violations of equal protection and due process rights within the Iowa Constitution.

While many in Iowa await the outcome of the long-standing dispute between the Branstad administration and Godfrey, the Iowa Supreme Court ruling merely sends the case forward. The Justices specifically note they were not considering the merits of the claims made by Godfrey, but ruling on the appropriateness of lawsuits by private citizens against government officials for such violations.

In that sense, the Iowa decision brings state law a step closer to federal guidelines. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 40 years ago in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics that violations of the Fourth Amendment by government officials could give rise to lawsuits for damages, when no other remedy was available. Although most recently the Court has narrowly chosen to limit remedies under Bivens, it expanded the decision twice, adding new options for filing such lawsuits.

The initial Bivens case encompassed entry of a New York apartment by six federal agents operating without a warrant, who threatened to arrest an entire family and subsequently searched the unit. The father of that family, Webster Bivens, was ultimately taken in custody and subjected to a “visual strip-search.”

Eight years after Bivens was decided, in Davis v. Passman, the Court allowed a lawsuit against a member of Congress for alleged sexual harassment of a female staffer. Another expansion came in 1980 as part of Carlson v. Green, when the Court allowed a mother to sue a public officer of a prison after her son, an inmate, died allegedly because officials failed to provide proper medical care for his chronic asthma.

None of this history, of course, predicts an outcome in the Godfrey case. But whether this particular case prevails isn’t as important as the Iowa court’s newly established ability of citizens to pursue damages against a government and its officials, even if the initial ruling is limited. It’s a liberty and right Iowans have never held at the state-level, and one they absolutely should “prize” and “maintain.”

As Godfrey noted, “Whatever the impact on my case, this is a decision that is really going to help Iowans impacted by improper government actions. That’s a great thing. This decision says that if the government is acting against somebody, the courts will be there to protect people. And we can have a jury that’s going to listen to the facts and decide.”

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 5, 2017. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette)