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State Attorneys Ask Iowa Supreme Court To Overturn Godfrey Verdict

Iowa Judicial Branch building
John Pemble
IPR file

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case where a jury found former Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against a state official, in part because of his sexual orientation.

In 2019, a jury decided Branstad retailiated against Chris Godfrey when he moved the former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner from the top of the state’s salary bracket to the bottom after Godfrey refused to resign. Godfrey was awarded $1.5 million in the case.

Attorneys representing the state and Branstad are asking the court to reverse the verdict and dismiss the case.

Debra Hulett, representing the state, told justices that Branstad did not know Godfrey was gay at the time his salary was cut. Even so, she argued the workers’ compensation commissioner is not protected from discrimination the same way as state employees, and that the pay cut was made according to state guidelines.

“Governor Branstad felt that (Godfrey’s) policy-making warranted a reduction in salary and that is what he did, and that is an appropriate exercise of discretion in his role as governor of the state,” Hulett said.

Justice Brent Appel asked why the Supreme Court should act on that argument if it was not convincing to the jury.

“The jury seems to come to a conclusion that the reduction in salary was not due to the reasons you attribute but were due to unlawful reasons. Don’t we have to give some credence to the jury verdict?” Appel asked.

“Not in this case because the salary establishing decision was solely in the discretion of the governor and the governor is the person that can decide what factors are important in addition to the delineated factors,” Hulett responded.

Attorney Roxanne Conlin, representing Godfrey, argued that if the court supports that argument, future governors could pressure appointed officials to interfere in administrative decisions.

Conlin said the court should uphold the jury’s verdict to hold the governor’s office accountable for an abuse of power aimed at forcing Godfrey out of his position.

“The governor did not lower his salary because of performance. The governor did not know a thing about his performance,” Conlin said. “The governor lowered Chris Godfrey’s salary by one-third in order to force him, to bludgeon him, to make him leave his term of office before it was over.”

An opinion from the Supreme Court will be released at a later date.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa