Should we oust sexual harassers?

Should Iowa voters have to wait until the next election to oust officials engaging in sexual harassment? The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that may provide an answer.

The case involves Abraham Watkins, elected as Van Buren County attorney as an independent in 2014.

Midway through his four-year term, a court said Watkins abused his position by sexually harassing county employees. Watkins was ousted, and appealed the ruling.

Case details are sordid — boasting and sharing of nude photographs, questions and comments about intimate body parts. They’d perhaps be more shocking if Iowans hadn’t recently heard reports of similar behavior in the Senate Republican Caucus.

Chapter 66 of the Iowa Code provides a framework for removal of appointed or elected officials not subject to impeachment. Causes include willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform duties, willful misconduct or maladministration, corruption, extortion, felony conviction, intoxication and violations of campaign finance laws.

The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. Justices recently heard a case that may determine if voters can oust official engaging in sexual harassment.
The Iowa Judicial Branch building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Local and district officials can be held accountable by a minimum of five registered voters, a county attorney or the attorney general.

One question surrounding the Van Buren County case is whether the Board of Supervisors sidestepped the law by appointing an acting county attorney to bring the petition for removal. But the larger question — the one that could have significant repercussions — is whether sexual harassment meets the threshold.

Justices were openly displeased by case details, according to former journalist Rox Laird on the “On Brief” blog, but pondered whether civil liability for lewd sexual conduct could trigger ouster.

Watkins’ attorney said allowing harassment to justify removal would be more dire than a slippery slope, labeling it “a cliff.”

Like the defendant’s legal team, I took a stroll through previous rulings, and it’s true the court has set a high bar for what constitutes “willful” and “maladministration.” The decision to oust an elected official is “drastic,” according to the court, and for protection of public interests.

“The word ‘willful’ … was held … to imply knowledge on the part of the officer, together with a purpose to do wrong,” the court noted while citing a case from 1910.

But what doesn’t seem to be as clear within the legal history is the specific definition of misconduct. In the appellate petition, Watkins’ attorney attempts to spawn its own by repeating the phrase “grave misconduct,” lifted from an 1899 decision. The defense contends the litany of sexual harassment allegations against Watkins aren’t “grave.”

But placing that phrase in context provides a better perspective: “ … peril arises only when his administration of the office is marked by such grave misconduct or such flagrant incompetency as demonstrates his unfitness for the position.”

The object of the law, according to the 1899 ruling, “is to rid the community of a corrupt, incapable or unworthy official.” Here, as well as in the state code, use of “or” is important.

Acts of sexual harassment may not signal corruption or ineptness, but they are malfeasance. Perpetrators are undeserving of public trust.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Oct. 7, 2017. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette