Staff Columnist

Branstad gets a second chance in appeal, but he's no victim

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies Friday , June 14, 2019, in a Polk County co
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies Friday , June 14, 2019, in a Polk County courtoom. He is named in a lawsuit brought by a former state employee who asserts that Branstand wanted him out because the employee is gay. (Pool photo from the Des Moines Register)

Gov. Kim Reynolds talks often of the need to give Iowans who made serious mistakes a second chance. Apparently, that also means former Gov. Terry Branstad.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Reynolds administration said it will appeal a July verdict by a Polk County jury that concluded Branstad and his former legal counsel Brenna Findley discriminated against former state workers’ compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, who is gay. After his election win in 2010, Branstad demanded Godfrey resign, even though the commission’s statutory term was not up.

When Godfrey refused, Branstad slashed his salary.

The jury awarded Godfrey $1.5 million. According to a tally by the Associated Press, taxpayers already have spent $2.4 million defending Branstad.

But Reynolds’ legal team believes they can win before the Iowa Supreme Court.

“They have a 182-page brief that outlines the issues that they saw with the case,” Reynolds told reporters. “I think it would be irresponsible for me not to, at this point, take it to the next step because the cost, at this point, is minimal.”

The brief Reynolds referred to was filed in late July as a quartet of lawyers from Nyemaster Goode, Iowa’s largest law firm, sought to set aside the jury’s verdict. It’s interesting reading, to be sure.

Much of the brief is stacked with legal arguments over aspects of the trial Team Branstad contends the District Court mishandled, from jury selection to jury instructions, and a long list in between.

But the brief’s first several pages are basically a jaw-dropping, taxpayer-funded political rant, highlighted by dramatic claims of slaughter, vendettas and a mutilated corpse!

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Branstad’s lawyers argued the entire trial amounted to little more than a “political vendetta” pursued by Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, who lost the 1982 gubernatorial election to Branstad.

“Fallen human nature seeks redemption. And lawsuits are dangerously convenient vehicles for exorcising the demons of legislative and election losses,” Branstad’s lawyers argued. All that’s missing is something about the fury of a woman scorned.

The District Court allowed Godfrey’s side to question potential jurors on their views regarding LGBTQ civil rights. Branstad’s team dubbed the questions a “religious test” through which “ … the court allowed the plaintiff to slaughter more Christians than Nero.”

By allowing Godfrey’s side to probe the Republican Party of Iowa’s anti-gay platform planks and political agenda, Branstad’s team insisted the court was a “willing accomplice in plaintiff’s ruthless and unconstitutional attack on the Iowa Republican Party and traditional values.”

Branstad’s attorneys decried the court’s decision to block them from questioning Godfrey, who sought emotional distress damages, about any past mental health problems, including “if plaintiff ever cried or lay awake at night before running into Terry Branstad.”

Instructions given to the jury were the “final nail in the coffin containing the mutilated corpse of lady justice,” Branstad’s lawyers wrote.

And, actually, it’s Branstad who is the real victim here. After all, in 2010, as his lawyers argue, he “left the security and peace of the private sector to help Iowa crawl out of an economic abyss.”

A lawsuit? He deserves a medal.

He also didn’t know Godfrey was gay. At least you can’t prove he did.

He also didn’t know about the GOP platform. He hadn’t read it.

“This was a mere show trial; a political circus with the court serving as ring master,” Team Branstad argued.

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“Like Sacco and Vanzetti, defendants can only pray that the trial phase of the Godfrey saga will be viewed by history as the low point in a dangerous era of Iowa Jurisprudence,” they wrote, referring to Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, so-called radicals who were wrongly convicted of murder in 1921 during the “Red Scare.” They were executed.

“All citizens of this state should hope that the Godfrey trial will not be remembered as a harbinger of the end of the American Democratic Experiment,” Branstad’s attorneys wrote, presumably, remarkably, with a straight face.

You expect to hear this sort of hyperventilated hyperbole bloviating from beneath our Golden Dome of Wisdom, but rarely in a serious court filing. I’m sure our Family Leaders were thrilled.

With the melodrama behind them, Branstad’s team did turn to legal arguments.

Basically, they contend Iowa’s civil rights code barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation doesn’t apply to Branstad’s requests for Godfrey’s resignation, the salary-slashing or line-item vetoes aimed at the agency’s funding. Branstad, they contend, simply wanted Godfrey gone so the Workers’ Compensation Commission would “treat employers in a fair and evenhanded manner,” and not at all because the governor’s business pals wanted the system tilted in their favor. He was simply exercising his broad executive authority.

Branstad couldn’t have discriminated, they contend, because he’s hired three gay staff members over the years.

But then, 151 pages in, while arguing Branstad’s team should have been allowed to question Godfrey about his mental health history, comes this gem.

“Like many gay men, plaintiff lived a tortured existence that resulted in acute anxiety and depression. Plaintiff was allowed to portray himself as a pristine picture of sanity and stability before allegedly ruined by defendants. The court enabled this ruse,” Branstad’s lawyers argued.

They also argued Godfrey’s emotional distress could have come from a variety of sources, including “stress related to health risks associated with the plaintiff’s lifestyle.”

So Branstad didn’t discriminate, but his team sure wouldn’t mind if the jury did.

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Ultimately, District Judge Brad McCall rejected all of Team Branstad’s arguments and let the jury’s verdict stand. Maybe the Iowa Supreme Court, packed with Branstad-Reynolds appointees, will see all of this differently.

So Branstad will get another chance. But win or lose, Branstad is no victim.

He indignantly denies discrimination. And yet, our former, longest-serving governor never once stood up for civil rights when it would have been politically courageous to do so, when he could have made a difference. He stood by largely silent when Supreme Court justices, including some he appointed, were being assailed and the righteous right was on the march.

He was only too happy to benefit from a red-meat wedge issue driving Republicans to the polls. He may not have read the platform, but he was more than glad to stand on it. He hired some gay employees, but didn’t object as members of his party sought to drive thousands of Iowans back into the shadows.

Now he works for President Donald Trump, who would banish transgender soldiers from our military, among other efforts to undermine civil rights.

So maybe the Supreme Court says he didn’t discriminate. Maybe appealing is cheap.

But the petty, vindictive and spiteful brand of politics Branstad and his allies have practiced from here to Washington, D.C., already has been far too costly.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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