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Jurors say they saw bias in law school case

Published: Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 11:26 a.m. CDT

DAVENPORT (AP) — Members of a federal jury say they believed the University of Iowa law school denied a promotion to a conservative because of her politics, but did not rule in the woman’s favor because they were split on whether the former dean could be held responsible.

Jurors said in interviews after last month’s trial that they agreed the law school unfairly passed over Teresa Wagner for jobs on the faculty. But they said they wanted to hold the school, not former dean Carolyn Jones, responsible for the discrimination and thus reached an unusual mixed verdict in the case, the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.

“I will say that everyone in that jury room believed that she had been discriminated against,” said Davenport resident Carol Tracy, the jury forewoman.

Jurors found that Jones did not violate Wagner’s free speech rights by using her political views and associations as a motivating factor to deny her jobs, but could not reach agreement on whether Jones violated Wagner’s equal-protection rights by treating her differently than other job candidates. A judge declared a mistrial on the second count, and both sides are arguing over whether there should be a retrial in the case.

Wagner, a part-time employee of the law school’s writing center, appeared on track to get a full-time position teaching legal writing and analysis to first-year law students in 2007 when she was a finalist for two open positions. But the faculty voted to hire a less-qualified candidate who had to resign within a year for poor performance, did not fill the other job, and then refused to consider Wagner for similar jobs that came open later.

Wagner filed the lawsuit contending the 50-member faculty — which included 46 Democrats — blocked her appointment because they knew she was a Republican who had worked for two anti-abortion groups, the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council. She claims a professor who helped draft the Roe v. Wade decision as a law clerk in 1973 led the opposition, and noted that one associate dean sent an email to Jones saying he feared it was because “they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it).”

The trial, held at the federal courthouse in Davenport, was considered groundbreaking in higher education. Some conservatives said the case spotlighted what they see as liberal bias in academia, while others scholars warned that if Wagner was successful, it could lead to similar lawsuits and changes in faculty hiring practices.

Wagner’s lawsuit named Jones as the plaintiff, and not the school itself, because federal law does not recognize political discrimination by institutions. Her attorney argued that Jones failed to take action to prevent the discrimination after being warned about it.

But Jones’ attorney, assistant attorney general George Carroll, had argued that the dean did nothing wrong in accepting the recommendation by the faculty not to hire Wagner. Carroll argued that appointments had long been made by faculty vote, and that the dean played little role in them.

Carroll called a string of law professors to the witness stand to testify that they were against Wagner because she had botched a question about legal analysis during a presentation to them. But jurors said they did not believe that explanation, and thought Wagner had been discriminated against.

Four jurors told the newspaper that they believed the school should have been named as the defendant. Jurors also said they were conflicted over whether Jones had the explicit ability to hire Wagner without the vote of the faculty.

Brian Laing, a juror from Bettendorf who identifies as an independent voter, said he didn’t realize that Wagner couldn’t directly name the university as a defendant.

“Our biggest thing is we felt Teresa Wagner sued the wrong person, but I did feel there was a case against the university itself,” Laing said.

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