U.S. Supreme Court rejects appeal of defamation case based on Iowa political ad

Hot off the press: the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand’s appeal of a Iowa Supreme Court ruling rejecting his defamation case. Bertrand’s lawsuit stemmed from a negative ad the Iowa Democratic Party ran against him during his 2010 campaign against Rick Mullin. To my surprise, Bertrand won significant damages in a jury trial, and a partial victory at the Iowa District Court level. The district court judge reduced the damages awarded to Bertrand but determined that the controversial television spot constituted “implied libel.”

Both Bertrand and the defendants in the defamation case (Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party) appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which heard the case in January. In May, justices unanimously dismissed the case. Bleeding Heartland posted key excerpts from that unanimous ruling here. You can read the full decision here (pdf).

Bertrand’s only option left was a U.S. Supreme Court appeal. I never thought he would get far with this lawsuit, because of extensive case law supporting strong protections for political campaign speech, as well as a high bar for any public figure claiming defamation (libel or slander).

Today, Bertrand v. Mullin et al appeared on a long list of cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.

UPDATE: Bertrand reacted to today’s news on his twitter feed. I’ve added those comments below. He still doesn’t have a grasp of the First Amendment issues.

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Iowa Supreme Court dismisses defamation case based on 2010 political ad

Today the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a defamation case filed by Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand over a 2010 negative television ad. You can read the full ruling here (pdf). I’ve posted a few excerpts below.

The Iowa Democratic Party ran the ad on behalf of Democratic candidate Rick Mullin shortly before the 2010 general election. Bertrand immediately filed a defamation lawsuit, in what I assumed was a stunt to change the media narrative. However, he pursued the case after winning the Iowa Senate race. In 2012, a jury decided in favor of Bertrand and awarded him $231,000 in damages. Later, a district court judge reduced the damages to $50,000 but determined that the tv ad constituted “implied libel.” The judge concluded that several statements in the commercial, though technically accurate, created a misleading impression about Bertrand. Both sides appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court. Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party asked the justices to overturn the original verdict, while Bertrand defended his libel claim and objected to the damages being reduced.

I always expected the verdict to be overturned on appeal, because of extensive case law supporting strong protections for political campaign speech, as well as a high bar for any public figure claiming defamation (libel or slander).

Chief Justice Mark Cady cited many judicial opinions in his ruling, joined by Justices Thomas Waterman, Daryl Hecht, Bruce Zager, and David Wiggins. Justices Edward Mansfield and Brent Appel recused themselves from this case for reasons Bleeding Heartland discussed here. During the oral arguments in January, some observers thought Waterman sounded sympathetic to Bertrand’s attorney–which goes to show comments made during oral arguments don’t necessarily reflect the way a judge will decide a case.

This morning, Bertrand told the Des Moines Register, “The Iowa Supreme Court failed the people of Iowa and they failed the nation today. They did not show the courage to really say no to lies and corruption in politics.” Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal released the following statement: “We are pleased with the decision by the Iowa Supreme Court. The decision affirms our original position: the communication in question was factually accurate and protected free speech.”

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Iowa Supreme Court considering defamation case over 2010 political ad

The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in an appeal of Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand’s defamation lawsuit against his 2010 opponent, Rick Mullin, and the Iowa Democratic Party. Des Moines attorney and law blogger Ryan Koopmans live-tweeted the hearing, and Mike Wiser and Grant Rodgers published summaries.

We’ll know the verdict within a few months, but I’ve posted some thoughts and predictions below.

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Remembering the Tinker case

A former Iowa student whose black armband led to an important U.S. Supreme Court decision of the 1960s died last week in Florida, the Des Moines Register reported yesterday. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union sued the Des Moines Independent Community School district on behalf of Christopher Eckhardt and his friends John Tinker and Mary Beth Tinker after all three students were suspended for wearing black armbands to their schools as an anti-war protest. The case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1969 that the school principals were not justified in limiting the students’ free expression.

Tinker v. Des Moines Ind. Comm. School Dist. may be the most important case from Iowa ever to reach the Supreme Court. Judges have applied the “Tinker standard” in many other First Amendment cases. After the jump I’ve posted links about the case and some reflections on Eckhardt’s role.

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Iowa GOP senator Bertrand wins defamation case over 2010 ad

A Sioux City jury awarded Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand $231,000 over a television commercial that attacked him shortly before the 2010 general election. It is rare for a defamation case based on political advertising to succeed, for reasons explained below.

UPDATE: Governor Terry Branstad suggested on April 9 that this verdict has got him thinking about suing the Democratic Governors Association over their 2010 campaign materials. Details are at the end of this post.

LATER UPDATE: Incredibly, Bertrand is appealing this verdict in order to seek punitive damages as well as the compensatory damages the jury awarded. More comments below.

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Iowa Senate passes two bills favored by Big Ag (updated)

The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate passed two bills today favored by corporate agricultural interest groups. House File 589, the notorious “ag gag” bill, seeks to prevent whistleblowers from reporting alleged abuse at agricultural facilities. Senate File 2172 would reduce the number of sows that confined-animal feeding operations need to report for manure management purposes. Details on the bills and how senators voted are after the jump.

UPDATE: Bypassing normal legislative procedures, the Republican-controlled Iowa House also passed the “ag gag” bill on February 28. Scroll down for details on how the state representatives voted.  

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