When Good Courts Go Bad: The Iowa Supreme Court Issues an Absurd Decision on Sexual Jealousy and Employment
by Joanna L. Grossman
January 8, 2013
In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court made national news for its surprising and unanimous decision in Varnum v. Brien, in which it held that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. Iowa was not the first state to legalize same-sex marriage—Massachusetts came first in 2004, followed by a handful of others in 2008—but it was the first to do so outside of the liberal confines of the Northeast.
Iowa’s high court made headlines again in 2010, when three of the justices who joined the Varnum opinion were recalled from the bench because of the decision. The three included the court’s only woman; all three vacancies were filled by men.
Now the court is back in the news—or at least, it should be—for an illogical decision that misinterprets governing civil rights statutes and reaches a preposterous result. In this ruling, in Nelson v. Knight, the court held that a male dentist did not violate a law banning sex discrimination when he fired his very competent female dental assistant because he found her to be an "irresistible attraction" whose very presence might incite him to commit sexual harassment and, perhaps ultimately, cost him his marriage.
In this column, I’ll explain why this ruling hearkens back to mistakes of the 1970s, when courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, struggled to figure out just exactly what "sex discrimination" is. But forty years of anti-discrimination law later, we know it when we see it. And this is definitely it. The Iowa court has done women’s workplace equality a colossal injustice by allowing men’s inability to control themselves to define women’s employment rights.
A Day in the Life of Dr. Knight’s Dental Office
In 1999, dentist James Knight hired Melissa Nelson to be a dental assistant in his office. She was 20 years old and had just received a two-year college degree. She worked in that position for over ten years and was, according to Dr. Knight, a "good assistant." She, in turn, said he was a person of "high integrity" and that he generally treated her in a respectful manner. Both Knight and Nelson were both married with children.
The tenor in the office seemed to change in the last year-and-a-half of Nelson’s employment. (The opinion does not reveal Knight’s age, but a mid-life crisis jumps out as one possible explanation.) Knight began to comment to Nelson that her clothing was "distracting," too tight, or too revealing. Nelson denied that her clothing was inappropriate, but did put on a lab coat whenever he complained. (Nelson states in a video interview with CNN, given after the verdict, that she wore t-shirts and scrubs to work.)
At some point, Knight and Nelson began texting each other about both work and personal matters. Some of these matters were innocuous—such as updates on their respective children’s activities—and others were more intimate. According to the available evidence, the in-person comments and texts of a sexual nature seemed to emanate exclusively from Dr. Knight. Knight admits that he once told Nelson if she saw his pants "bulging" then she would know she was dressed in too sexy a manner. He texted her once to complain that the shirt she wore that day was too tight. Nelson replied that she thought his complaint was unfair. His surreply? He told her it was a good thing she did not wear tight pants too, because then he would get it coming and going. Read more