Carolyn Jones, former dean of the University of Iowa College of Law.
Carolyn Jones, former dean of the University of Iowa College of Law. (University of Iowa)

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has ordered a new trial for Teresa Wagner, who sued the former dean of the University of Iowa College of Law in 2009 alleging that the school discriminated against her because of her conservative views.

A three-judge panel found that the magistrate judge overseeing jury deliberations erred when he reconvened the jury for further questioning after initially dismissing them after declaring a mistrial.

“Today, we hold, in a case such as the present one, where a court declares a mistrial and discharges the jury, which then disburses from the confines of the courtroom, the jury can no longer render, reconsider, amend or clarify a verdict on the mistried counts,” the court said in a ruling handed down on Tuesday.

“In this age of instant individualized electronic communication and widespread personal control and management of pocket-sized wireless devices, we think this bright-line rule is more faithful to precedent and offers better guidance than an amorphous rule that turns on whether jurors in fact became available for or were susceptible to outside influences or remained within total control of the court,” it said.

The jurors spent two days deliberating following five days of testimony in Davenport, Iowa, in October 2012, but indicated that they could not reach a verdict. Wagner had alleged one complaint of violating her First Amendment rights and a second of violating her due-process and equal-protection rights. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Shields failed to clarify whether the jury had deadlocked on one or both claims before declaring a mistrial.

Just minutes after dismissing the jury, Shields reassembled the jurors and questioned them about which claims they had deadlocked upon. The jurors informed him that they’d agreed about dismissing Wagner’s First Amendment claim, but not her due-process and equal-protection claim.

Shields then amended his mistrial ruling to apply only to the second claim, and entered a verdict in favor of former law dean Carolyn Jones on the first claim. Wagner appealed soon afterward, arguing that Shields lacked the authority to bring the jury back after he declared a mistrial.

Wagner initially sued in 2009 after the law school declined to hire her for a full-time, tenured position as a legal writing instructor in 2007. She had spent a year teaching part-time in the school’s legal writing center and had worked for conservative organizations including the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council.

She alleged that the three full-time legal writing instructors the school eventually hired had less experience than she did. After losing out on the full-time job in 2007, she was refused a job as an adjunct instructor four times between 2007 and 2009.

A number of Iowa law faculty witnesses testified that Wagner wasn’t hired because she performed poorly during her interview. However, they acknowledged being aware of her political views. She seeks economic damages for lost wages and emotional distress and a faculty teaching position. Since initially filing the suit, she has added sitting dean Gail Agrawal as a defendant.

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