Editorial: End the all-male court


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Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court made a rare move in announcing it would reconsider the case, without any new evidence being proposed, of Melissa Nelson — a dental assistant in Webster County who was fired in 2010 for being “irresistibly attractive” and, thus, a threat to her boss’s marriage.

When Nelson originally sued on claim of sex discrimination against her ex-employer for being wrongfully terminated from her job of 10 years, the all-male court ruled unanimously in favor of Nelson’s boss. The court deemed Nelson’s termination legal because it was based on specific emotions tied to a specific relationship, rather than an attitude toward her sex.

It seemed, after the court decided to revisit this case, that it was poised to issue a new ruling in favor of Nelson. However, on July 12, the Iowa Supreme Court justices simply gave Nelson a more expansive opinion as they reaffirmed their decision about the attractive hygienist.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling is an embarrassment.

Despite the national controversy that the court’s December opinion generated, the justices once more ruled unanimously to support the clear precedent that they set in allowing employers to fire employees based on their looks.

The July 12 ruling includes a 17-page majority decision that finds in favor of the dentist and stresses that the issue before the court “is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight [Nelson’s employer] treated Nelson badly,” but that “if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife.”

Although Nelson shared no sexual intimacy with her employer, and her employer apparently had more feelings for Nelson than she did for him, the three justices found that there was still a relationship that existed between the two and stressed the weight behind “the activities” of Nelson’s “consensual personal relationship with her employer.”

Perhaps the decision would have been different if there were any female justices on the Iowa Supreme Court.

Despite the state’s impressive early history of promoting women lawyers, Iowa is one of only three states without a female justice on its court of last resort. Furthermore, only 21 percent of judges appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals have been women.

Research indicates that equal representation is important in ensuring equal justice; the presence of female judges increases fairness in case outcomes.

Women judges can bring to the bench a unique understanding of the effect of the law the lives of women and girls. They ensure that courts provide justice that is not limited to the male perspective, particularly in cases such as Nelson’s which have profound effects for women.

A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Political Science showed that male federal appellate court judges are more likely to rule in favor of plaintiffs bringing sex-discrimination claims if a female judge is on the panel.

Had there been a female judge on the Iowa Supreme Court, the outcome of Nelson’s case may have been different.

Clearly, the current all-male court evidently does not possess the unique feminine perspective necessary to make the right decision in this case. The outcome of this bizarre case is a strong indicator that the era of the all-male Iowa Supreme Court must come to an end.

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