Victory : Court rules gender quota unconstitutional

January 23, 2024 | By LAURA D’AGOSTINO
Board room

Your gender shouldn’t disqualify you from a public position: That’s the key takeaway from Pacific Legal Foundation’s district court victory in Hurley v. Gast in Iowa.  

In the late 1980s, the Iowa state legislature passed several bills requiring state boards and commissions to be gender balanced. The move was part of a larger, worldwide push to increase female participation in government. Iowa’s State Judicial Nominating Commission was one of the commissions directly targeted by legislators during this sweep.  

The State Judicial Nominating Commission interviews and recommends individuals to be appointed by the governor to the Iowa Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Nine of the commissioners are appointed. The other eight are elected, two from each of Iowa’s four congressional districts.  

Iowa’s gender quota required that each district elect one man and one woman to the commission. Men could run only for commission seats previously held by a man, and women could run only for commission seats previously held by a woman. 

Pacific Legal Foundation’s client, Charles Hurley, is a devoted father and grandfather who has spent the past 40 years serving his community as an attorney, public representative, and church member. During his time as a state representative, Charles served on Iowa’s House Judiciary Committee. His experience makes him an excellent candidate for the State Judicial Nominating Commission. 

But Iowa law made him ineligible for election in his district, because the next open seat on the commission would have to go to a woman.  

On January 11, a year and a half after PLF filed Charles’s lawsuit, the district court sided with Charles in a victory for equality and opportunity. Iowa argued its gender quota was “appropriately enacted to address the absolute absence of women” on the commission. In its decision, the Court addressed Iowa’s “stated goal of remedying past discrimination” and stated that:  

the Court cannot find the law is substantially related to any current discrimination… Defendant states that “[e]ven if it would be appropriate to end the gender-balance requirement someday, today is not that day.” That may be the case. However, the government has the sole burden to show that the sex-based classification, a presumptively invalid state action, survives heightened scrutiny. It has not done so. Presented with limited evidence, the Court must find that Iowa Code § 46.2(1) is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Read the full decision.

For more on this issue, read our report, Public Service Denied: How Discriminatory Mandates Prevent Qualified Individuals from Serving on Public Boards.