Less than a week after a judge ruled a jury’s verdict, finding that former Iowa governor Terry Branstad had illegally discriminated against a gay state employee, was based on substantial evidence, current governor Kim Reynolds said it would be “irresponsible” not to appeal the verdict.
Reynolds made her remark while speaking to reporters, following the ceremonial pardoning of two turkeys at the governor’s mansion on Tuesday. Her decision to appeal the verdict was announced on Friday, Nov. 22.
In 2011, then-governor Branstad slashed the salary of Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey from $112,068 to $73,250 (the lowest salary allowed by state law), drastically reduced the budget for Godfrey’s office and even eliminated the job of one of Godfey’s assistants, in an attempt to force the commissioner to resign. A worker’s compensation commissioner serves a fixed term, and state law prevents a governor from firing one.
Godfrey didn’t resign — he remained in the job until 2014, when he was appointed chief judge of the U.S. Employees’ Compensation Appeal Board — and in 2013, Godfrey sued, claiming Branstad had singled him out because he was gay.
Branstad never denied taking those actions with the intent of forcing Godfrey out, but denied it was because Godfrey was gay. While testifying during the trial in July, Branstad said under oath he was just doing the bidding of Iowa business groups who felt Godfrey was too pro-worker.
Jurors didn’t believe Branstad, who admitted he’d never conducted a review of Godfrey’s performance in office. The jury agreed with Godfrey that he had been targeted because he’s openly gay, and awarded him $1.5 million in damages. The state may also be required to pay Godfrey’s legal expenses, which are currently estimated to be $4.1 million.
The private attorneys hired by the state to handle Branstad’s defense — the Iowa Attorney Generals’ Office declined to defend Branstad — fought hard to keep Godfrey’s lawsuit from reaching a jury, and the case was appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court twice before the jury trial got underway in June.
The state has already paid Branstad’s attorneys $2.5 million, and they have billed the state a further $377,905.
“I think it would be irresponsible for me not to, at this point, take it to the next step because the cost is minimal,” Reynolds said on Tuesday, explaining her decision to appeal the jury decision.
The governor said the defense attorneys — who, of course, will continue to bill the state as long as the appeals process continues — assured her they have a solid case for winning on appeal.
“We feel that we have a very strong case, and one of the options is to be done with it, not to go to retrial,” Reynolds said. “This is the right path to go.”
The first attempt by Branstad’s attorneys to overturn the jury’s verdict was rejected last week by Judge Brad McCall, who presided over the trial.
The defense attorneys argued the jury’s verdict wasn’t based on sufficient evidence. The judge ruled the jury had been presented with substantial evidence that Godfrey had been targeted because of his sexual orientation.
“Having had the opportunity to evaluate Branstad’s denials as he testified, the jury verdict clearly reflects the jury’s rejection of Branstad’s denials,” McCall said in his decision.