With Wagner, the Iowa Supreme Court continues building an “Iowa Courts” jurisprudence

by Matt McGuire | January 26, 2021

Few law school courses inspire more fear and frustration from students than Federal Courts.  A standard elective at most law schools, the course’s prosaic name belies a devilishly complex body of law regarding who can sue whom in federal court, and for what.  One Federal Courts professor asked rhetorically in a 2001 law review article: “Is it possible the [Supreme] Court’s treatment of the Eleventh Amendment and Section 1983 [42 U.S.C. § 1983] can best be explained as a hostile reaction to the Justices’ Federal Courts teachers?”

The law taught in most Federal Courts classes consists of various judge-made rules that are often clearly in reaction to other judge-made rules that allow or restrict federal jurisdiction.  For example, the Supreme Court’s 1908 opinion in Ex Parte Young is commonly understood as a “safety valve” allowing suits alleging Constitutional violations against state officers in their personal capacity when suits against states or their officers in their official capacity would otherwise be barred by the Eleventh Amendment.  The doctrine of qualified immunity was largely developed over the last half-century in reaction to the proliferation of litigation under Ex Parte Young and Section 1983.  Similarly, in 1971 the Supreme Court recognized an implied right of action for damages against federal officers for constitutional violations in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents.  Yet in the decades that followed Bivens, the Court consistently refused to extend the Bivens cause of action beyond a handful of recognized contexts.  The upshot of this push and pull is a rather intricate set of rules and a lot of heartburn for law students.

I could not help but be reminded of my own experience studying Federal Courts as I read the Iowa Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Wagner v. State of Iowa.  (Read our summary of the opinion here.)  Wagner shows a Court that is clearly wrestling with the implications of its 2017 holding in Godfrey v. State (“Godfrey II“).  Godfrey II and the cases that followed it—including Wagner—demonstrate a push and pull similar to the U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence taught in Federal Courts.

In Godfrey II, a divided Court held that the Iowa Constitution includes an implied private right of action to individuals for suits alleging violations of the Iowa Constitution against the state and state officials acting in their official capacities.  Godfrey II recognized the existence of this implied right of action, and in subsequent cases the Court has begun more precisely defining its metes and bounds.  In Baldwin v. City of Estherville (“Baldwin I“), the Court defined a qualified-immunity standard for Godfrey claims.  In a subsequent opinion (“Baldwin II“), the Court held that the bar on punitive damages and attorneys’ fees found in the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act (IMTCA) applies to a Godfrey claim against a municipality or its employees.  And in Wagner, the Court held that the Iowa Tort Claims Act (ITCA) applies to Godfrey claims against the state or state employees–including the ITCA’s administrative exhaustion requirement and the requirement that claims be brought in Iowa district court.

While the Iowa Supreme Court does not seem inclined to reconsider its decision in Godfrey II, these post-Godfrey II cases impose meaningful restrictions on the newly recognized Godfrey claim all the same.  Nor is the Court finished defining the parameters of a Godfrey claim; in all likelihood far from it.  The Wagner majority acknowledged that many open questions remain, including notably whether a plaintiff may maintain a Godfrey claim against state officers in their individual capacity.  Future cases will likely add additional complexity to this emerging area of law.  Interestingly, the Wagner majority went out of its way to characterize the Godfrey claim as “robust” in contrast with the federal cause of action available under Bivens.  While the U.S. Supreme Court’s post-Bivens case law provides a blueprint for how to limit the applicability and effect of an implied constitutional cause of action to a court so inclined, the Iowa Supreme Court appears to be forging its own path as to claims under the Iowa Constitution.


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