Jury mulls liberal bias claim at Iowa law school

October 22, 2012 - 9:33 PM

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — Jurors started deliberating Monday in the case of a conservative who claims she was passed over for University of Iowa law school jobs because liberal faculty members opposed her political views, including her opposition to abortion.

Closed-door deliberations began after jurors heard closing arguments in the case of Teresa Wagner, who is hoping to score a victory for conservatives who claim they have long been passed over for jobs and promotions at some colleges because of liberal bias. The case is considered the first of its kind in academia, and experts say it has the potential to shake up faculty hiring practices if successful.

Abortion politics were at the center of the weeklong trial at the federal courthouse in Davenport, where Wagner argued she was unfairly rejected for jobs teaching legal writing and analysis to first-year students. The law school says she was rejected for jobs after she botched a question during a job interview.

Jurors are expected to resume their discussion Tuesday morning.

Wagner's attorney, Steve Fieweger, told jurors that professor Randall Bezanson, a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun who helped draft the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, led the opposition to her hiring during a 2007 faculty meeting. Wagner, a part-time employee of the law school's writing center, had previously worked as a lawyer for the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council, which both oppose abortion rights.

"We're asking you to make sure that political position she takes does not affect her ability to get a job," Fieweger said.

He said that "blazing liberal" faculty members made up testimony that she answered a question poorly to hide the discrimination, comparing the situation to minorities who at one time were given bogus excuses for not being allowed to join country clubs. He asked jurors to award more than $400,000 in damages, including for lost pay and benefits.

George Carroll, an assistant attorney general defending the law school, told jurors that the sole named defendant, former law school Dean Carolyn Jones, did nothing wrong in accepting the faculty's decision not to hire Wagner. He said it was Wagner who injected her political beliefs into the process by bringing them to the attention of a faculty appointments committee and wrongly accusing professors of discriminating against her.

Carroll cited testimony from professors who said they opposed Wagner's appointment because she said she would not teach legal analysis, a key part of the job. He said the school continued to employ Wagner part time in its writing center even after she filed the lawsuit because "there is no animosity" toward her.

"Mrs. Wagner is imposing her political beliefs on the University of Iowa in an unacceptable way," Carroll said. "To submit that, 'you were a registered Democrat, you couldn't be fair-minded to others,' I reject that."

Earlier in the day, Jones and three current and former professors testified that Wagner's statements during the interview reflected poorly on her and led to her rejection. "The job talk was, for a lot of people, disqualifying," professor Christina Bohannan testified.

Former law school professor Peggie Smith, now at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a videotaped deposition that she asked Wagner again after the interview about legal analysis to try to give her another opportunity to show she understood its significance. Wagner again failed to do so, Smith said.

"For me, that settled the deal," Smith testified.

But Wagner denied making any such statements about analysis and noted the law school erased a videotape of her interview. Wagner also showed jurors the outline of her faculty presentation that showed she planned to talk about her vision for legal analysis in the class and that she would use a textbook titled "Legal Writing and Analysis."

Wagner testified that she thought she would get one of two full-time openings when she was among two finalists. Instead, the faculty decided to recommend the other finalist, Matt Williamson, and not fill the second job at that time. Carroll acknowledged that Williamson was considered a poor teacher and left after one year.

"I was very surprised and disappointed, devastated even, that the job could have been given to him," Wagner said. She noted she had prior experience teaching a similar class at George Mason University, had practiced law and gotten more articles published.