In an opinion filed May 5, 2023 in Burnett v. Smith and State of Iowa the Iowa Supreme Court overruled its 2017 opinion in Godfrey v. State, which recognized a private right of action for damages against State officials for violations of the Iowa Constitution.

In this case, the plaintiff, a garbage truck driver, sued an Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) officer and the State of Iowa for damages arising out of a traffic-stop-turned-arrest that resulted in the plaintiff’s acquittal. The plaintiff, pleading a damages claim under the Iowa Constitution pursuant to Godfrey, alleged that the officer violated his rights under, among other provisions, article I, section 8 of the Iowa Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim on summary judgment, finding no constitutional violation.

On appeal, the State argued that the district court’s summary judgment analysis was correct. But the State also argued that Godfrey was wrongly decided and should be overruled. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Edward Mansfield agreed.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Godfrey held that state officials could be sued for money damages directly under the Iowa Constitution for violation of the Iowa Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The controlling opinion in Godfrey, a separate opinion written by then-Chief Justice Mark Cady, held that the Iowa Constitution only provided a cause of action for damages claims in tort to the extent the legislature had not provided an “adequate remedy.” The private right of action recognized in Godfrey resembled the private right of action under the federal Constitution in the United States Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents. But the full contours of the Godfrey right of action were not fully defined in the Godfrey opinion itself, which involved a claim for violation of the rights of equal protection and due process arising from alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Justice Mansfield, who dissented from the Supreme Court’s opinion in Godfrey, offered seven separate reasons that underlie the Court’s decision to overrule the 2017 opinion. First, he wrote, the opinion in Godfrey was not consistent with Article XII, section 1. This provision, on one hand, makes the Constitution the supreme law of the state, with supremacy over any other law enacted within the state; but on the other hand, it states that the general assembly “shall pass all laws necessary to carry this Constitution into effect.” Justice Mansfield reasoned that this provision constitutes an acknowledgement that statutory law, not constitutional law, is the source of all private rights of action for damages for violations of constitutional rights.

Second, the Court wrote that prior to the Iowa Constitution’s enactment, it was understood that the common law already provided for a right of action against local law enforcement for redress of tortious conduct. The Court observed that the doctrine of sovereign immunity from private suits for damages prevailed in Iowa from prior to the enactment of the Iowa Constitution until the Legislature’s enactment of the Iowa Tort Claims Act—which allowed such suits, but with limits. The Court reasoned that this shows that it was understood at the time of the enactment of the Iowa Constitution that the State could not be sued for damages absent its consent.

Fourth, the Court raised a practical point. Justice Mansfield observed that the Godfrey right of action has been used “to advance constitutional claims of questionable legal merit.” The Court concluded that “it is unclear whether Godfrey, at a practical level, is really needed.” Along those same lines, the Court noted that many plaintiffs have raised parallel Godfrey claims in litigation in federal court for violation of the federal constitution. The Court noted that in those cases the Godfrey right of action was not materially expanding the plaintiff’s available remedies.

Sixth, the Court noted that since Godfrey was decided only six years ago, there is less “reliance interest” in the opinion. Finally, the Court found that it and other courts have found it difficult to decide the cases that followed in Godfrey’s wake. The Court noted that many open questions remain in terms of defining the contours of the Godfrey right of action, including, among others: a standard for deciding when an existing remedy is “adequate,” which Constitutional provisions provide rights that can be vindicated by a damages action; and other issues relating to immunity questions and interaction between the constitutional right of action and state procedural law. Two years ago, for example, this blog discussed a case in which the Court considered whether the Iowa Tort Claim’s Act’s procedural requirements applied to a Godfrey claim. We wrote: “Nor is the Court finished defining the parameters of a Godfrey claim; in all likelihood far from it. . . . Future cases will likely add additional complexity to this emerging area of law.”

Chief Justice Christensen joined the Court’s opinion in full and wrote a separate concurring opinion to articulate her jurisprudential approach regarding stare decisis. She explained that she dissented from the Court’s decision to overrule Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Reynolds (“PPH II”)in a case last term (see our summary of that opinion here) on stare decisis grounds, i.e., respect for precedent. She explained that she believed stare decisis considerations counseled against overruling PPH II, because it set forth a workable standard of review for courts to followed. By contrast, the Godfrey opinion could not be evenhandedly and predictably applied, the Chief Justice wrote, so it should be overruled.


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