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Univ. of Iowa Urges SCOTUS to Intervene in Political Professor Case

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on December 02, 2014 3:56 PM

Last week, the University of Iowa asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block a second trial in the case of Teresa Wagner, a part-time writing instructor at the University of Iowa College of Law who claimed she was denied a full-time position because of her conservative politics.

In July, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said that Wagner was entitled to a second trial after the trial judge made a procedural misstep. So what's going on?

They Don't Like Her Politics

Wagner seemed eminently qualified for the job. A graduate of U of I's law school who taught at George Mason University School of Law, she had also authored several briefs, including one in the case Stenberg v. Carhart, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said completely outlawing a particular abortion method was totally OK.

Except that Wagner was on the anti-abortion side. In fact, she was openly and actively against women's rights to access abortions. This, she claims, is why U of I didn't hire her. This reason was apparently no secret: In 2007, one law school dean wrote to another, "Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role, in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it)."

Mistrial -- Wait, Just Kidding!

But this petition isn't about that, actually. It's about trial procedure. In a 2012 trial, the jury informed the judge that they wouldn't be able to agree on a verdict. In open court, but without lawyers present, each juror confirmed that he or she didn't see the jury coming to an agreement. So the judge declared a mistrial.

Except that wasn't the right thing to do. A few minutes later, the judge realized that he should have asked the jurors about each count. As it turned out, the jurors couldn't reach a decision on just one of the two counts. On the first count, the jury had found for Carolyn Jones, the dean of the law school. It was only on the second count, an equal protection violation, that they couldn't agree. The judge amended the mistrial order to apply only to count two.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit held that, because the judge had already declared a mistrial and dismissed the jurors, "the jury can no longer render, reconsider, amend, or clarify a verdict on the mistried counts." A bright-line rule? Yes, the court said; even though the mistrial had been declared only a few minutes earlier, it was drawing a line in the sand to make clear to everyone -- lawyers, parties, judges, jurors -- when the trial is dead.

The law school's victory was fleeting, and, it claims, unfair. It "must now face retrial solely because the magistrate judge mistakenly discharged an uncompromised jury," said attorneys for the law school. Wagner has until December 29 to respond to the cert. petition.

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