‘District courts are not free to bypass rules of procedure that are carefully calibrated to ensure fair process…’
(Dave Goldiner and Stephen Rex Brown, New York Daily News) Sarah Palin won a legal victory Tuesday with a federal appeals court revival of her defamation lawsuit against The New York Times over an opinion piece that tied her to the 2011 shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a decision by Judge Jed Rakoff, who had tossed Palin’s lawsuit on the grounds that an error in a June 2017 Times editorial was not “made maliciously.”
The panel made no judgment on the merits of Palin’s claim that The Times improperly accused her of inciting the shooting that wounded Giffords in a Tucson, Ariz., strip mall.
Instead, the ruling revolved around an unusual evidentiary hearing in which Rakoff heard testimony from the writer, editor James Bennet.
The three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals determined the hearing did not follow proper protocol.
“District courts are not free to bypass rules of procedure that are carefully calibrated to ensure fair process to both sides,” Judge John Walker wrote.
The Appeals Court said Rakoff had let Bennet’s testimony influence a “negative view” of Palin’s allegations.
The judge was also too dismissive of Palin’s claims that Bennet had a personal connection to the shooting through his brother, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the panel wrote.
The districts of some of Michael Bennet’s Democratic allies were targeted in Sarah Palin’s map.
“It is plain from the record that the district court found Bennet a credible witness, and that the district court’s crediting his testimony impermissibly anchored the district court’s own negative view of the plausibility of Palin’s allegations,” the appeals panel wrote.
Palin’s suit alleged the editorial, “America’s Lethal Politics,” defamed her by linking ads from her political action committee to the 2011 shooting.
The editorial said the ads put “Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”
But the crosshairs were actually over images of electoral districts rather than of individual politicians. The Times ran a correction.
“We are disappointed in the decision and intend to continue to defend the action vigorously,” a Times spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Public figures like Palin generally face a very high legal bar when suing news organizations for defamation.
They must prove not only that the material was false but also that the writers or editors acted with “actual malice” against them.
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