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Iowa Supreme Court Reverses Itself on Lawsuits for Constitutional Rights Violations

Overturning a recent precedent, the court ruled that Iowans have no right to sue for money damages when government officials violate their rights.


When Cory Burnett sued the police officer who arrested him for violating his right against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Iowa Constitution, he had a good reason to believe he could pursue money damages: in 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court allowed a similar claim. Unfortunately for him, the Iowa Supreme Court used his case to overrule that decision in May.  

Burnett was caught between two different views of federal precedent. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bivens decision allowed a plaintiff alleging a Fourth Amendment violation to pursue money damages, even though the text of that amendment doesn’t explicitly allow money damages as a remedy. The Court also found that the Fourth Amendment could provide money damages even if Congress had not written a statute authorizing them.   

However, the Supreme Court has declined to extend Bivens and has suggested it was wrongly decided. The current majority believes that Congress, not federal courts, should decide whether litigants can get money damages for constitutional violations. The impetus for this position is a desire to entrust democratically accountable branches with the decision over how best to calibrate appropriate remedies and prevent courts from violating separation of powers principles by taking on what current justices believe is essentially a legislative role.   

In 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Godfrey v. State drew heavily upon Bivens to allow a workers’ compensation commissioner to pursue money damages for a claim that firing him violated the Iowa Constitution’s due process and equal protection guarantees. Godfrey agreed with Bivens’s approach to creating remedies and disagreed with later U.S. Supreme Court decisions abandoning Bivens

In 2023, by contrast, the Iowa Supreme Court emphasized the U.S. Supreme Court’s growing skepticism of Bivens to suggest that Iowa courts should adopt a similar attitude. And it echoed the same concerns about separation of powers that the U.S. Supreme Court has raised in criticizing Bivens. Finally, it applied the same originalist methodology to justify its decision that is ascendant at the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Both Godfrey and Burnett treated the Iowa Constitution in large part as a satellite revolving around the federal Constitution. But this isn’t the only approach available to state courts. Other states confronting issues of legal remedies should consider provisions unique to their state constitutions. Unlike Iowa, 40 states have a constitutional provision promising something like “all courts shall be open, and every person, for an injury done him in his person, property or reputation, shall have remedy by the due course of the law.” Burnett disagreed with the idea that individuals should always have a money damages remedy for constitutional violations. In many other states, however, clear constitutional text should at least make courts take that idea seriously.   

Future Iowa plaintiffs in Burnett’s position have no easy alternative to claims for money damages under the Iowa Constitution. The Iowa Supreme Court argued that Burnett could have filed a claim alleging that the police officer violated the federal Constitution. But qualified immunity often bars plaintiffs from pursuing such claims. The court also suggested that common law claims such as trespassing would be viable. In reality, the common law decisions that provide the framework for tort law are centuries old, predate written constitutions, and unsurprisingly don’t always address the same concerns constitutions do. As such, common law will at least sometimes provide an inadequate or nonexistent remedy to plaintiffs whose constitutional rights have been violated. Now, courts have the authority to update the common law to better match new circumstances. But it is hard to see the Iowa Supreme Court breaking from 19th-century common law precedents when it focused so heavily on 19th-century history to interpret the Iowa Constitution.  

In the near term, then, the courthouse door is closed for claims like Burnett’s unless the legislature acts. That seems doubtful because much of the energy around police reform that emerged during the summer of 2020 has dissipated. In the next several years, however, Iowans have an opportunity to allow for claims like Burnett’s on their own. The Iowa Constitution requires that voters be offered a choice of whether to call a new constitutional convention every 10 years. They’ll get their next opportunity in 2030.  

On a final note, Burnett is also notable for how it treated precedent. It overruled a decision that was only six years old. In a move reminiscent of what the North Carolina Supreme Court did recently in the gerrymandering context, Justice Edward Mansfield turned his dissent in Godfrey into the majority opinion in Burnett. What happened in the past six years to allow this striking development? Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has appointed five justices to the Iowa Supreme Court since 2017. She has had so many appointments because, unlike their federal counterparts, Iowa judges must retire by age 72. The ones who retired were judges who had adopted a more expansive reading of the state’s constitution.  

In concluding that the principle of stare decisis didn’t require adhering to Godfrey, the Iowa Supreme Court said there was no significant reliance interest. The reason was that Godfrey “is not an entrenched precedent; it was decided only six years ago.” Again, this suggests that state court precedents might be even more vulnerable than comparable federal precedents. While shifting the U.S. Supreme Court’s composition can take considerable time, state courts might experience much more rapid ideological changes because of judicial elections and mandatory retirement requirements. 

Marcus Gadson is an assistant professor of law at Campbell University. 

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