Friday, December 10, 2010

A Very Unusual Defamation Suit Looms On The Legal Horizon

Most lawsuits of the civil variety are about as interesting as watching a tennis match.

Strange language in pleadings thereunto appertaining and notwithstanding relevance of a pertinent nature is to be avoided like the plague, just like watching paint as it is drying or cement as it is curing.

One reaches for a writ of hocus pocus or a petition of panjandrum, to say the least, to defend oneself against the legal heebie jeebies.

Likewise, all characterizations of a professional nature hereinafter cited are to be considered as did the Irishman who was kicked by the jackass.

He said consider the source.

However, when it comes to a defamation of character suit alleging complaints of malicious intent during the heat of a protracted political battle over a judicial election to a Texas District Court of Appeals, then all having business herein draw near and you will definitely get an earful.

To add spice to the proceedings, this case involves doctors and lawyers going at each other over lawsuits, liberalism and legal bias.

Hammer and tongs, many flags unfurled, the b-flat blues - and all that jazz. They're just right for each other, the doctors and lawyers.

But this case is most unusual, to say the least, because it involves criticism of a public official who was running in a campaign for re-election to office, a type of speech courts have long held to be privileged.

We just might see the making of new landmark case law, a holding that will make scribes and political activists sit up and take notice for a long time to come.

It definitely bears watching.

Anything can happen when the balloon goes up between doctors and lawyers in a Texas courtroom; in this case, the venue is 414th District Court, Judge Vicki Menard, presiding.

Mr. Justice Felipe Reyna of the 10th District Court of Appeals at Waco has filed suit alleging malice against a retired Longview surgeon named Dr. John Coppedge, an operative of the Texas Bipartisan Justice Committee. He is the treasurer of the organization.

Dr. Coppedge and his associates endorsed District Judge Al Scoggins of Waxahachie in the Republican Primary election. Judge Scoggins won the contest.

In doing so, the committee complained in its website that “Since assuming office, Reyna has been a disaster on the court. Reyna's opinions are those of a classic liberal judicial activist. He is the most frequently reversed appellate judge in Texas. His opinions, in our estimation, favor criminals in criminal cases and plaintiffs in civil ones.”

Justice Reyna's lawsuit alleges those statements are inaccurate - and thus malicious.

Truth is an absolute and affirmative defense against a charge of libel or defamation, a commodity which will thus nullify any allegation of malicious intent.

The contest will consist of a battle of wits waged by the jurist's attorney, Darrell L. Keith of Ft. Worth, to prove that the complaints and allegations of the Texas Bipartisan Justice Committee were not only untruthful, but constituted a false and malicious conspiracy to tar Justice Reyna with the dreaded brush of judicial activism freshly dipped in the bucket of sticky liberal goo.

Mr. Justice Reyna has wisely reserved comment. Representing one self in a court of law was once described by a local Texas jurist as “Kind of like performing open heart surgery on yourself.”

His attorney, Mr. Keith, says “Even public officials are protected from being defamed under certain circumstances because defamation of a public official, even in a heated political campaign, can undermine and distort the democratic process and can cause harm to the victim of the defamation. Judge Reyna believes that he was defamed and intends to pursue the case vigorously.”

Impossible, decried opposing counsel for the defendant.

Ed Merritt of Longview answered the judge's suit in this way, by saying he and his client, Dr. Coppedge, will demand strict proof of “actual malice by clear and convincing evidence...

“Justice Reyna complains of material published for purposes of helping his opponent win an election contest. With the need to balance free speech in the election process, the likelihood of a public official succeeding in a defamation action on the facts and circumstances set by Justice Reyna is impossible.”

Watch these columns for further developments. The Legendary plans gavel-to-gavel coverage of the lawsuit.

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