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Views from across Iowa

Jul 18, 2013

The Hawk Eye, July 15

Sexism redux: Iowa Supreme Court backs lusty boss


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled soulless corporations are people. They have rights and feelings, too.

Following the same sort of logic, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled for a second time that an employer’s feelings count more than an employee’s when a boss fires a subordinate because he fears he might succumb to her charms and initiate an affair.

Last December the all-male Iowa Supreme Court ruled Fort Dodge dentist James Knight did nothing illegal in firing longtime employee Melissa Nelson. Because, as his defense noted, he feared he might have an affair with her. That and because his wife made him fire Nelson upon learning her husband had communicated with Nelson via text messages.

It didn’t matter that Nelson said she viewed her much older boss as a father figure, not a romantic partner. Nelson sued Knight, claiming she was a victim of gender discrimination.

But the high court tossed the suit, saying she was no victim.

The reality in Iowa is that a boss can fire an employee for just about any reason. Or no reason.

But in their ruling the justices upheld the firing by saying that the crux of the legal question is “whether an employee who has not engaged in flirtatious conduct may be lawfully terminated simply because the boss views the employee as an irresistible attraction.”

They declared the answer is yes.

As many Iowans interpreted that adolescent rationale, the court concluded that being a petty, immature and unjust boss doesn’t enter into the boss-employee relationship.

The ruling didn’t set well with women and men who recognize the discriminatory unfairness of firing someone because a boss can’t control his (or her) urges.

Asked by Nelson’s attorney, Paige Fiedler, to reconsider its much-mocked ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court did. Last week it issued a revision that unfortunately reiterated its first conclusion supporting the firing.

It did, however, erase the controversial sexist language that indicted Nelson for being too attractive and irresistible for her own good. But the justices still exempted her boss from any responsibility.

The now-missing sentence’s original author, Justice Edward Mansfield, said Nelson’s arguments didn’t support a claim that she was fired for how she looked, which would have been a civil rights violation.

Which leaves working Iowans pondering the court’s original idiotic conclusion that she (or anyone) can be fired for how her looks made her boss feel.

If, in revisiting its prior judgment, Iowa’s highest court was trying look less sexist and more empathetic to the injustices of a largely patriarchal workplace, it failed miserably.

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Fort Dodge Messenger, July 12

This isn’t animal torture?


A man who beat a puppy to death with a baseball bat didn’t commit animal torture, according to the Iowa Court of Appeals.

It appears that two members of the three-person court didn’t believe Zachary Meerdink acted with “depraved intent” when he bludgeoned to death a 7-month-old Boston terrier puppy.

The court vacated Meerdink’s conviction for animal torture.

Lin Sorenson, founder of the Des Moines-based St. Francis Foundation for Pets, called the court’s decision “inconceivable” and said “it breaks the logic barrier.”

Evidently, the majority of the court believes Meerdink wasn’t acting with enough depraved or sadistic intent to support an animal torture conviction. That begs the question, what more would he had to have done?

Chief Judge Larry Eisenhauer said, in his ruling, that it wasn’t clear how many times the dog was struck. Had Meerdink been defending himself from a vicious, attacking, oversized animal, that might have been a reasonable factor to consider. But, there’s nothing to indicate Meerdink was trying to protect himself from a dog whose breed, at full-size, rarely tops 25 pounds.

Meerdink’s girlfriend testified that the puppy had a weak stomach, often resulting in accidents in the house, had jumped on people, had bitten her sons and wasn’t responding to coaching. None of that justifies hitting a puppy with a baseball bat, even once. Meerdink had to have known doing so would be extremely painful and would likely kill a small, young dog.

If the puppy wasn’t working out in the home, there are animal shelters and rescue groups throughout the state that would have given it refuge.

Scott County Attorney Mike Walton, who prosecuted the case, said it’s up to the Iowa attorney general’s office to decide whether to ask the state Supreme Court to review the ruling. The Messenger strongly urges Tom Miller’s office to do so and send a message that beating puppies to death, regardless of the reason is, indeed, torture.

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Sioux City Journal, July 11

Second bullying summit provides opportunities


We welcome plans for a second statewide bullying summit later this year. The event, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 4 in Des Moines, will insure Iowa remains an engaged leader in the fight to protect children from this scourge.

We expect nothing less than another informative, constructive day.

The summit provides an opportunity to build support for another try at strengthening Iowa’s anti-bullying law by addressing cyberbullying next year.

The centerpiece of anti-bullying legislation proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad (the bill didn’t pass either chamber of the Legislature this year) was focused on cyberbullying, which involves tormenting, threatening, harassing or embarrassing someone using the Internet or other technologies, like cellphones.

Two key components of the Branstad proposal would have added “social networking” to the definition of electronic communication in anti-bullying law and give school administrators more authority under state law to address cyberbullying on, for example, Facebook, even if the bullying occurs away from school or school functions.

We support efforts by Branstad to strengthen state law as it relates to cyberbullying, but we acknowledge reasonable questions exist about his proposal. This year’s summit should be used, in part, to address concerns about the plan with the goal of crafting a cyberbullying bill capable of mustering enough support for passage in both legislative chambers next year.

Another issue we hope gets additional discussion at the next summit is a proposal made during this year’s legislative session by Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, aimed at parents of kids who bully other kids. The bill was patterned after the state’s truancy law, which holds parents of problem truants responsible.

Under Hall’s bill, which didn’t reach the House floor for a vote, school officials would involve both the parents of the bully and the bullied in an effort to stop the harassment. If the bullying persisted and/or parents of the bully did not cooperate in putting a stop to it, the bill allowed school officials to seek remedy through the county attorney’s office.

We supported Hall’s bill because, in our view, parents should be made by law to accept shared responsibility for acts of bullying by their children and demonstrate responsiveness and cooperation in efforts to stop the behavior.

Again, we acknowledge questions and concerns exist about Hall’s proposal. In fact, Hall told Mike Wiser of the Journal’s Des Moines bureau for a July 7 story he isn’t sure he will reintroduce the bill next year.

This year’s summit provides an opportunity to mine deeper into the issue of parental responsibility for acts of bullying. Our hope is the issue remains alive for another shot at passage in some form next year.


The Des Moines Register. July 13

Governor’s veto opts for secrecy, not transparency


Before it adjourned in the spring, the Iowa Legislature passed legislation creating a committee of citizens and state officials to study alternatives to housing violent criminals in nursing homes. Gov. Terry Branstad vetoed the legislation, however, because he said it would have duplicated the efforts of a “work group” he created within the executive branch.

That might be fine, except that the governor has taken the position that meetings of his “work group,” which consists of the heads of four state agencies, are not open to the public. The committee proposed by the Legislature would have done its work in public.

This issue has public interest because, as the Register has reported, dozens of sex offenders have been living in Iowa care facilities along with vulnerable, disabled adults.

Iowa’s open meetings law says that any “advisory board, advisory commission, or task force created by the governor or the General Assembly to develop and make recommendations on public policy issues” is a public body. That means its meetings must be open to the public. Under the governor’s definition, however, his “work group” has refused to open its meetings to the public.

This makes too much of the difference between “work group,” which does not appear anywhere in the open meetings law, and “task force,” which does. The meetings law was intended by the Legislature to be read broadly in the interest of open government. But by any interpretation, the law should cover a group of state officials formally created by the governor to make policy recommendations. In any case, Branstad’s “work group” should meet in public, whether the law requires it or not.

Branstad makes a point of bragging about his administration’s transparency, which by and large is true. But in this case, he chose a secretive process that has now been going on for nearly two years with little or nothing to show for it. At least not publicly.

The Legislature’s proposed committee would unquestionably have fit the legal definition of a public body, meaning it would be required to hold public meetings. Legislators should resurrect the bill, and next time, the governor should sign it.


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