U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Shields declared a mistrial Wednesday night in a case involving Teresa Wagner’s claim that liberal faculty at the University of Iowa law school denied her a teaching position in 2007 because of her conservative views on abortion and her work for pro-life organizations such as the Family Research Council.
A jury found that her First Amendment rights were not violated, but after three days it was deadlocked on whether she was denied equal protection under the 14th Amendment, District Judge Robert W. Pratt told The Associated Press late Wednesday night.
Pratt was the presiding judge in the case, but Shields took over when Pratt returned to Des Moines when the case went to the jury. In the federal judiciary, magistrate judges can try cases with consent of the parties.
Shields told jurors the move means the case will have to be retried or resolved some other way, such as a settlement.
The mistrial came hours after Shields warned jurors not to act “as partisans.” Nonetheless, the jury sent a note Wednesday afternoon saying, “I do not see us ever agreeing.”
“We’ll fight another day,” Wagner’s lawyer, Stephen Fieweger, said afterward. “This is not over.”
During a weeklong trial watched closely in higher education, Wagner claimed that the overwhelmingly liberal faculty refused to hire her because she is a Republican who had worked for pro-life socially conservative groups. She argued that the opposition to her appointment was led by professor Randall Bezanson, who, as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, helped draft the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Several professors testified that while they knew of Wagner’s political beliefs, they passed her over for jobs teaching legal analysis and writing because she flunked a job interview in January 2007. Several professors testified that she botched questions about how she would teach legal analysis, a key component of the job.
But Wagner said that claim was fabricated to excuse the political motivations of the 50-member faculty, which included 46 registered Democrats. The faculty hired a much less qualified person instead, even though Wagner had already received positive reviews from students and faculty and the endorsement of a key committee while teaching part-time at the school.
Her lawyer had asked for more than $400,000 in damages.
Some observers of higher education have warned that a decision for Wagner would give the courts a bigger role in second-guessing decisions best left to the judgment of universities and would likely lead to more litigation.
But conservatives charge they have often been passed over in hiring and promotion, although discrimination has never been proved in court. Some had high hopes for this trial because Wagner’s evidence included what her lawyer called a “smoking gun email,” in which an associate dean warned then-Dean Carolyn Jones that he worried professors were blocking Wagner’s hiring “because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it).”
“We’re unlikely to see a case this clear-cut for a very long time,” said Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, who said he routinely hears from rejected conservative professors. “What makes Teresa Wagner’s case so extraordinary is she came up with the documentary evidence of what was really going on.”
Still, Wood doubts that the case would force much change. “It [could] make them a trifle more cautious in keeping their biases out of sight, but it doesn’t mean they won’t act on them.”
More likely to bring change, Wood said, are large-scale forces shaking up higher education. Cheaper online programs, skyrocketing tuition, fewer job opportunities, and massive student loan debt that leave more people wondering whether a traditional college education is a good investment. If enough students decide it’s overvalued, the “higher education bubble” will pop, bringing on a financial crisis for many institutions.
If there is a collapse, some observers think law schools might be the first to suffer, Wood said, and a college known for discrimination could hurt its recruiting. “I think it’s discouraging to students when institutions in which they’ve invested considerable time and money conspicuously act in bad faith,” he said. “It’s a doubtful market position to put your college in.”