The Iowa Supreme Court says a lawsuit against the governor by the state’s workers compensation commissioner can move ahead. Christoper Godfrey sued claiming defamation and extortion after he was asked to resign when Governor Terry Branstad took office, and then his pay was cut when he refused to do so.
The district court threw out some of the claims in Godfrey’s lawsuit after the Attorney General issued a certification that the governor and his staff were acting as employees of the state at the time and were immune. The Supreme Court ruled the lawsuit should be allowed to proceed until a judge rules on whether the governor was acting as a state employee at the time.
Justice Thomas Waterman wrote a dissenting opinion. Waterman says the majority creates an anticertification loophole that substitutes the plaintiff’s counsel for the attorney general in determining whether the state employee must defend the lawsuit at his or her own expense. Waterman says the consequences the decision will be to hamper job performance by state officials and to deter good people from public service.
Part of the lawsuit involved media interviews the governor gave. Waterman in his dissent says the ruling could keep state employees from talking with the media. “This will create a strong incentive for public officials to clam up and not participate in press conferences or allow media interviews. Is this what we want? Is it what the legislature intended? It should be noted that the decision in this case applies to all branches of government, including members of the general assembly. Allowing plaintiffs to sidestep the safeguards of the certification procedure will have a chilling effect on the willingness of state officials to answer questions about official actions or pending legislation,” Waterman wrote. Justice Edward Mansfield joined Waterman’s dissent.
Roxanne Conline, Godfrey’s attorney, issued this statement on the ruling. “We believe this opinion reaffirms a basic principle of Iowa law and that is that everyone- even the Governor is subject to the law and responsible for his or her acts. The prediction that this decision will open the floodgates is not correct. In almost all cases the person bringing the lawsuit is glad to have the state responsible for damages. It is only a case like this where the Governor, Lt Gov and the staff have tried to intimidate and harass a hardworking and honest state employee that this comes into play. The governor does not have the right to attempt to drive a judicial officer out of his office.”
See the full ruling here: Godfrey ruling PDF