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Texas Supreme Court overturns libel ruling because of judge's bribe

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The Texas Supreme Court declined to rule on a libel appeal brought against two Texas newspapers by alleged child abusers…

The Texas Supreme Court declined to rule on a libel appeal brought against two Texas newspapers by alleged child abusers last Friday because a lower court judge previously accepted a bribe to decide against the publications. The high court also ruled void the trial judge's decision.

According to court documents submitted by Freedom Communications Inc., the company that publishes southern Texas newspapers The Brownsville Herald and Valley Morning Star, former District Judge Abel Limas in Brownsville admitted to accepting $8,000 to rule against the newspapers in a libel and privacy-invasion suit. The news media organization had asked Limas to dismiss the case against its publications, arguing that a contested advertisement that they ran four years ago was “accurate, true, and non-actionable,” according to the high court’s unsigned opinion.

The case, Freedom Communications, Inc. v. Coronado, which the state high court remanded back to the trial court without ruling on the libel claim, involves four Texas men who sued the newspapers for printing an ad in 2008 that identified them as individuals arrested but never prosecuted for alleged child abuse.

“We were hoping that the court would address the merits of our appeal,” Jeffrey T. Nobles, an attorney for the newspapers, said in an interview. “But I think it’s a good decision.”

Arguing that they were defamed and that their privacy was invaded, the plaintiffs also sued Texas lawyer Peter Zavaletta, who submitted the ad as part of his local campaign for Cameron County district attorney.

“I think the defendants have very strong arguments,” Thomas S. Leatherbury, a Dallas media lawyer following the case, said. “It’s a shame that the process was corrupted in the trial court. But the defendants will now have another opportunity in a fair forum to present their argument."

Each state has its own libel laws, but the general standard for libel defenses is that the information must be substantially true. In Texas, notably, news organizations are immune from liability under the fair report privilege, which protects journalists who fairly and accurately report information that comes directly from an official source, even if that information is incorrect.

Limas, who is now awaiting sentencing on federal racketeering charges, ruled that a jury could find that the statements were not substantially true and refused to dismiss the defamation claim. The judge also found that a question existed about whether the statements were of a legitimate public concern sufficient to dismiss the invasion of privacy claim. The newspapers appealed the ruling, and the intermediate appellate court affirmed. The Texas Supreme Court overturned both decisions, and said it would not rule on the case’s merits, finding that it lacked jurisdiction.

“If Limas’ order is void, then the court of appeals did not have authority to consider the merits of Freedom’s appeal from the order denying summary judgment, and neither do we," the judges wrote.

Marc G. Rosenthal, an attorney for the Texas men who sued the newspapers, could not be reached for comment.

The case will be re-argued to a state trial court sometime in the next few months, Nobles said.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Introduction — Defamatory communication — Publication — Falsity