DAVENPORT, Iowa — A conservative lawyer testified Monday that she was shocked when she was passed over for a teaching job at the University of Iowa law school in favor of a less-qualified candidate who ended up resigning after performing poorly.
Teresa Wagner took the witness stand as her lawyers finished presenting her case, laid out during a weeklong trial in federal court in Davenport, that the liberal-leaning law school faculty blocked her appointment because of her conservative views and prior work for groups that oppose abortion rights.
The case is being closely watched in higher education and legal circles because of longstanding allegations of political bias at left-leaning law schools. Some experts say that, if successful, it could lead to more lawsuits. Closing arguments were made Monday afternoon, and a jury of eight women and four men will next consider whether Wagner was discriminated against and, if so, how much she should be awarded.
Abortion politics are at the center of the case, in which Wagner argues she was unfairly rejected for jobs teaching legal writing and analysis to first-year students. Wagner claims professor Randall Bezanson, a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun when he authored the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, led the opposition to her hiring. Wagner, a part-time employee of the law school’s writing center, notes her resume included her past work as a lawyer for the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council, which both oppose abortion rights.
Wagner testified last week, and her lawyers called her back to the stand Monday to try to rebut the law school’s central defense: that she was rejected because she said during a job interview in January 2007 that she would not teach legal analysis, a key part of the job. Former Dean Carolyn Jones and three current and former professors testified Monday that those statements reflected poorly on her and led to her rejection.
“The job talk was, for a lot of people, disqualifying,” professor Christina Bohannan testified. “Consistently, her answer was that analysis was not part of the job.”
Former law school professor Peggy Smith, now at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a videotaped deposition played Monday that she asked Wagner again after the interview about legal analysis to try to give her another opportunity to show she understood its significance. Wagner again failed to do so, Smith said.
“For me, that settled the deal” that Wagner should not be hired, Smith testified.
Wagner denied making any such statements about analysis, and her lawyers suggest the school is orchestrating those claims to win the case. They note the law school erased a videotape of her interview shortly after she was passed over. Wagner also showed jurors the outline of her faculty presentation that showed she did plan to talk about her vision for incorporating legal analysis into the class and that she would use a textbook titled “Legal Writing and Analysis.”
Wagner testified that she thought she would get one of two full-time openings when she was among two finalists for them. Instead, the faculty decided to recommend the other finalist, Matt Williamson, and not fill the second job at that time. Testimony from law school employees showed Williamson was considered a poor teacher who left after his first year.
“I was very surprised and disappointed, devastated even, that the job could have been given to him,” Wagner said. She noted she had prior experience teaching a similar class at George Mason University, had practiced law and gotten more articles published.
Wagner’s lawyers also focused on applicants who beat out Wagner for part-time teaching jobs in the following years. They included Dawn Anderson, who said she was given a part-time job despite poor evaluations from students in her first and third semester. Anderson said she has since improved her teaching and is now a full-time professor.