Judge vs. Blogger Libel Lawsuit Can Go Forward

So holds today’s Lewis v. Rapp (N.C. Ct. App. May 1, 2012). An excerpt:

In April 2010, plaintiff was the serving Senior Resident Judge of Judicial District 13B in North Carolina and was engaged in a campaign to retain her seat in the November 2010 election. She was also a vocal supporter of William Rabon who was running for the North Carolina State Senate. Defendant, a citizen of North Carolina, was a known supporter of Rabon’s opponent, Bettie Fennell. Defendant also volunteered to serve as Fennell’s “Media Strategist” without receiving compensation.

On 9 April 2010, defendant posted a blog entry on Facebook titled “Dirty Politics by the good ol boys.” The blog entry was also posted on Carolina Talk Network. In this post, defendant criticized Rabon and further stated: “When sitting judges campaign for a candidate, in clear violation of the seventh canon of the NC Code of Judicial conduct[,] [w]e are clearly into dirty politics” (hereinafter referred to as “the 9 April publication”). That same day, plaintiff’s attorney emailed defendant and informed him that plaintiff was a candidate for office and that Canon 7B(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct allows a candidate to endorse any other candidate seeking election to any office. Plaintiff’s attorney also cited a memorandum issued by Chief Judge John Martin on 26 February 2010 in which he reiterated to members of the judiciary what conduct was permissible and what conduct was prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct during the 2010 election cycle. The memorandum specifically cited to Canon 7B(2) and stated that a judge was permitted to endorse any candidate seeking office so long as the judge is also a judicial candidate.

On 12 April 2010, defendant posted another blog entry on Facebook and Carolina Talk Network titled: “Apologies, Corrections, Explanations and Amplifications on my Blogs.” Defendant stated in pertinent part:

I have spent this past weekend in prayer, mediation [sic], and contemplation…. First, let me apologize for my comment about the sitting judge being in violation [of] The North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct. I was wrong. This can be done only by proper disciplinary proceedings and I have neither right nor authority to make that judgment and will let the proper authorities make that determination, if and when, it is brought before them. I have read, top to bottom, The North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct and have voiced my opinion based on the pertinent articles provided in appendix 1 at the end of this blog. I also solicited the opinion of a friend of mine who happens to be an attorney. We both agreed that there is probable cause for such action. Read the appendix and make up your own mind…. It is my belief that for any Republican office holder to campaign openly for any candidate in a primary is wrong. Office holders cannot appear to be private citizens. The power and authority of their office precludes this.

Defendant included portions of the Code of Judicial Conduct in the appendix to his blog entry; however, he did not include Canon 7B(2).

The court concluded that there was no evidence that defendant’s April 9 statement was said with so-called “actual malice,” which is to say that defendant knew it was false or consciously entertained serious doubts about its truth; plaintiff’s case was therefore thrown out as to the statement. But the court concluded that there was sufficient evidence of such “actual malice” as to the April 12 statement:

Although defendant expressly stated that it was his opinion that plaintiff had violated the Code of Judicial Conduct, an individual “cannot preface an otherwise defamatory statement with ‘in my opinion’ and claim immunity from liability[.]” Daniels, 179 N.C. App. at 539, 634 S.E.2d at 590. Defendant claimed in the 12 April publication that he had read the Code of Judicial Conduct from “top to bottom” and it was his “opinion” that “probable cause” existed for the “proper authorities” to take “action.” Defendant was aware at that point that plaintiff was a candidate for judicial office. Having read the Code of Judicial Conduct from “top to bottom,” he was also aware that as a candidate for office, plaintiff was permitted to campaign on behalf of another candidate pursuant to Canon 7B(2). Defendant had been told by plaintiff’s attorney that Chief Judge Martin had issued a memorandum in which he stated that a sitting judge seeking reelection was permitted to campaign for any other candidate. Whether plaintiff was, in fact, in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct could be easily investigated and proven false. Defendant ignored the proof that plaintiff was not in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct and chose to assert a provable false accusation against plaintiff.

Moreover, defendant included portions of the Code of Judicial Conduct in the appendix to his blog entry so that his readers could “make up [their] own mind[s]”; however, he did not include Canon 7B(2), which exonerates plaintiff of any wrongdoing. Defendant did, however, include Canon 7B(1), which, if read in isolation, would indicate that a judge may not endorse a political candidate. The inclusion of Canon 7B(1), coupled with the exclusion of Canon 7B(2), can only be perceived as a deliberate attempt by defendant to substantiate the false accusation contained in the publication….

[Footnote:] We note that defendant did express an opinion when he stated: “It is my belief that for any Republican office holder to campaign openly for any candidate in a primary is wrong. Office holders cannot appear to be private citizens. The power and authority of their office precludes this.” This statement, unlike the accusation that plaintiff was in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, cannot be proven true or false. Defendant is entitled to his opinion that it is “wrong,” or even unethical, for an office holder to campaign for a candidate. An opinion that a judge has acted unethically is quite different from an accusation that a judge has committed an act that could potentially lead to official disciplinary action.