By any reasonable measure, Abraham Watkins is unfit for public service.
Watkins was elected as the Van Buren County Attorney in 2014. He conducted official county business out of his own home, also the site of his private legal practice. He hired his wife and his private practice’s legal assistant as part-time county employees.
Watkins and his wife “would constantly argue about their marital issues in the office,” according to court documents. Watkins made inappropriate comments about women’s bodies, entered the office wearing only underwear, shared nude pictures of his wife and repeatedly asked an employee about her “broken vagina” following a gynecological appointment.
The Van Buren County Supervisors petitioned to remove Watkins from office and a district court carried out their request. However, despite Watkins’ well-documented indiscretions, the decision to remove him was overturned last week by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Justice Bruce Zager wrote in the court’s plurality opinion that Watkins’ behavior did not meet Iowa law’s high threshold for removing elected officials from office.
“While we agree that Watkins’s conduct was voluntary, thoughtless, and offensive, the evidence does not show that he conducted himself in such a way that it was done willfully with an evil purpose. … We are judges, not guardians of behavior for elected officials,” Zager wrote.
Still, the all-male court’s decision was notably split. Only Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield signed on to Zager’s plurality opinion. Justice Brent Appel wrote a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote a dissenting opinion, which Justice Daryl Hecht joined. Justice David Wiggins wrote his own dissent.
“Today’s decision is intimately tied to 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,” Cady wrote in his dissent.
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We have to wonder whether a court with women on it — the gender that bears the brunt of workplace sexual harassment — might have seen things differently.
Only two women have served on the court in state history. Perhaps the Iowa Supreme Court’s gender balance will change when Gov. Kim Reynolds appoints a justice to replace Zager later this year. Among 22 applicants to be interviewed, 15 are women.
This case also underscores the need for greater transparency in government. If county supervisors had not pushed for Watkins’ removal, it’s possible the taxpayers and voters of Van Buren County still would not know about his shameful behavior at their expense.
We are reminded that an investigation of sexual harassment in the Iowa Senate last year revealed a sitting state senator had been accused of inappropriate remarks, but the name was redacted. Thousands of Iowans are represented by a potential predator, but since we don’t know who, constituents can’t vote him out.
Voters can only act on claims of misconduct if they know about them. Too often, that’s not the case.
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