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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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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First take on the Iowa House and Senate results (updated)

Democrats suffered big losses in the Iowa House and Senate last night. Assuming no results change through recounts, the House is likely to switch from 56 Democrats and 44 Republicans to 59 Republicans and 41 Democrats. I’ve seen some online references to a 58-42 split, but that’s not how the count looks based on unofficial results posted on the Secretary of State’s website.

Democrats maintain control of the Iowa Senate, but their majority shrank from 32-18 to 27-23. Governor-elect Terry Branstad should easily be able to get his agenda through the Iowa House, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal may have trouble keeping his caucus united.

UPDATE: Late returns could change the outcome in two Senate seats; it’s possible the chamber could have a 25-25 split, or a 26-24 Democratic majority.

SECOND UPDATE: A few more races could switch as more absentee ballots come in. As of Wednesday evening, Democrat Tom Schueller is now trailing in House district 25 by about 150 votes.

Here’s my take on the seats that changed hands and the near-misses.

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The case of the missing Republican fundraising

Last week Democratic and Republican candidates for the Iowa legislature filed disclosure reports on their campaign contributions and expenditures. For most candidates, those reports covered the period from June 2 through July 14. For the few candidates who didn’t file reports on the Friday preceding the June primary, the July 19 reports covered campaign fundraising and expenses between May 15 and July 14.

John Deeth posted cash-on-hand totals for candidates in most of the Iowa House and Senate battleground districts. The numbers are encouraging for Democrats, because our candidates lead their opponents in cash on hand in most of the targeted districts.

As I read through the July 19 contribution reports, I noticed something strange. Republican candidates in various targeted Iowa House and Senate districts reported improbably low fundraising numbers. As a general rule, candidates strive for impressive fundraising to demonstrate their viability, and cash on hand in July indicates which candidate will have more resources during crunch time. However, I got the impression that several of the Republican Iowa House and Senate candidates made little effort to obtain campaign contributions during the latest reporting period. Follow me after the jump for some examples and possible explanations.  

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