Iowa Supreme Court justices heaped no praise on a county attorney ousted for sexual harassment, but still gave him his job back. The decision makes the public’s right to know all the more important.
The case involves Abraham Watkins, elected to serve as the Van Buren County Attorney in November 2014 and ousted by a district court judge in January 2017. The state Supreme Court heard arguments in the case last fall, and reviewed a litany of workplace harassment accusations leveled against Watkins by other county employees.
The court learned, for instance, that Watkins came into the office, which was attached to his home, wearing only boxer briefs. Employees said Watkins shared nude photos of his wife, and said he was “glad” he had kept similar photos of his former girlfriends. The county official commented on his employees’ intimate body parts, in one instance asking if a bra was padded and, in another, discussing an employee’s “broke vagina.”
Even so, the majority of justices on the all-male Supreme Court ruled that Watkins’ conduct “did not rise to the level of misconduct that would warrant the ‘drastic’ and ‘penal’ remedy of a court order removing an elected official from office.”
Three justices vehemently dissented — Justice David Wiggins wrote the majority decision was found in a “good-old-boy excuse,” and Chief Justice Mark Cady (joined by Justice Daryl Hecht) said the decision was rooted in “a bygone era of law that shielded men who knew better, at the expense of their female employees, who were required to abandon their jobs or forced to accept harassment as a condition of employment.”
A fourth justice, Brent Appel, ultimately agreed misconduct didn’t rise to the level required by law for ouster from office, but did so within his own viewing of the case, which even he admitted more closely followed Cady’s dissent than the majority decision written by Justice Bruce Zager.
Debate centered on Chapter 66 of the Iowa Code, which provides a framework for removal of appointed or elected officials not subject to impeachment. Causes include willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform duties, willful misconduct or maladministration, corruption, extortion, felony conviction, intoxication and violations of campaign finance laws.
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“We are not persuaded that Watkins acted ‘with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty,’ which requires more than a showing that Watkins acted intentionally,” Zager wrote.
Repeatedly labeling Watkins’ conduct as “disgraceful,” Zager nonetheless said, “We are judges, not guardians of behavior for elected officials.”
If you find fault with the court’s determination that state law makes intoxication a legitimate reason to oust an elected official, but creation of a toxic workplace environment doesn’t ... well, know you aren’t alone.
As Cady eloquently pointed out, the court has further solidified the small crevice between a political rock and a hard place where female government workers too often exist.
Their choices revert to finding another job, learning to live with the hostile environment created by an elected official or coming forward with allegations and subjecting themselves to probable public backlash.
Because the only remedy the court currently recognizes for this specific type of professional misconduct is the remedy of the ballot box.
Unfortunately, Iowans already understand that political interests will protect their own. Members of the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus purposefully redacted names of perpetrators of sexual harassment in their internal report, shielding those members from the remedy of the ballot box.
The onus once again is placed on women, who too often become repeat victims once they find the courage to come forward.
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“To be clear, sexual harassment in any form is never acceptable or appropriate behavior,” Zager wrote in the majority opinion. “It is important that our court system, like all institutions, protect and support victims of sexual harassment.”
I’m unconvinced that simply labeling such blatant misconduct as “disgraceful, disrespectful, and inappropriate,” “egregious” and “morally reprehensible” lives up to the spirit of the law. Such admonishments, even from the state’s highest court, provide no protection or support to victims of sexual harassment, nor do they compel partisan interests to break their silence to give voters the power of the ballot box.
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, firstname.lastname@example.org