A public law school faces trial over liberal bias

By Ryan J. Foley

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 13 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

As a lawyer for conservative groups, Wagner wrote papers and books and filed court briefs on behalf of conservative social causes after graduating from law school in 1993.

She moved back to Iowa City with her husband and four children in 2006 to raise their family. She says she had the necessary experience for the law school openings because she had taught writing at George Mason law school in Virginia and an ethics class at Notre Dame. In 2002, she'd turned down a job offer from Ave Marie Law School, a conservative Catholic institution then located in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"I thought she was going to be dynamic in the classroom," said Ave Marie dean emeritus Bernard Dobranski. "She was very lively and vivacious."

But Wagner says an associate Iowa dean told her to conceal her connection to Ave Maria during the interview because it would be viewed negatively. Before professors voted on whether to recommend her hiring, she claims Bezanson spoke in opposition.

In a deposition, Bezanson said that he "picked up someone saying she was conservative" during discussions but denied that was the driving factor in his opposition. "However anybody voted, nobody is ever stupid enough to say anything about that in a faculty meeting," said Bezanson, an expert on free speech.

The law school says Wagner told them she would not teach legal analysis, which professors found unacceptable since it was in the job description.

Professor Michael Vitiello, of University of the Pacific law school in Sacramento, has argued that claims of liberal bias at law schools are overblown. He said Wagner's case posed intriguing questions about whether political views should be considered in hiring decisions.

"There is something very interesting, seeing conservatives suing on job discrimination claims because suddenly they are portraying themselves as victims," he said. "This case is filled with all sorts of ironies."

Olson, of the Cato Institute and author of a book on legal academia, said the jury's decision "could shake up lots of hiring practices. If they say state universities are under scrutiny to make sure they are not discriminating against viewpoints, then a lot of people can sue, a lot of cases are going to be pretty good and the universities are going to have someone looking over their shoulder."

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