University of Iowa law school officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a second trial over whether they improperly passed over a conservative scholar for a faculty position.
The filing last week is the latest development in a hotly contested, five-year-old lawsuit that has been closely watched in higher education. But justices only accept a tiny fraction of petitions for review, and an attorney for Teresa Wagner — who says she was discriminated against by liberal professors — said Monday he would oppose the request later this month.
“It’s time to get this case tried,” attorney Stephen Fieweger said.
Lawyers for the school’s current and former deans petitioned justices last week to overturn an appeals court ruling that granted Wagner a new trial. The court should reinstate a 2012 verdict that found the school’s former dean didn’t discriminate against Wagner based on her beliefs, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office argued in the petition. The state agency is defending school officials in the case.
University spokesman Joe Brennan said Monday that retrying the case “would be a waste of judicial resources and entirely unfair” to the school.
Wagner, a part-time employee of the law school’s writing center, claims that liberal professors blocked her 2007 candidacy for jobs teaching legal writing because she is a Republican who previously worked for anti-abortion groups. She’s seeking to be placed into a job with back pay and damages.
Professors testified that they were aware of Wagner’s politics but passed her over because she performed poorly during an interview.
The lawsuit went to trial two years ago, but has since been tangled up over a judge’s mistake.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Shields declared a mistrial and dismissed jurors after they reported they couldn’t come to a unanimous decision. But minutes later, Shields realized he should have asked jurors whether they had a verdict on either of the two counts.
Jurors were called back and reported they had agreed on one count, that former law school dean Carolyn Jones didn’t violate Wagner’s First Amendment rights in upholding the faculty’s decision not to hire her. He accepted that verdict.
But jurors said they split on Wagner’s equal protection claim, and Shields declared a mistrial on that count. That count was later dismissed, and a judge ruled last year that the case was over.
But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that Wagner was entitled to a second trial because Shields erred in recalling the jury. The court said a jury couldn’t “render, reconsider, amend or clarify a verdict” after a judge declared a mistrial and allowed jurors to leave the courtroom. The court cited concerns about jurors facing outside influences, “in this age of instant individualized electronic communication.”
Last week’s petition said that decision was out of line with other court rulings and “fundamentally unfair” to law school officials.
“They must now face retrial solely because the magistrate judge mistakenly discharged an uncompromised jury,” lawyers for the school argued.
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