U.S. Supreme Court Won’t Rule on Libel Case Against Minn. Paper

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a libel case filed by a Carver County commissioner against the Chanhassen Villager newspaper, meaning the case heads back to a lower court for more proceedings.

Without comment, the high court declined to review a decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which last March threw out a $625,500 judgment against the newspaper and its former editor and ordered a new trial to determine what the damages should be.

Attorneys for both the newspaper and County Commissioner Tom Workman said they weren’t surprised. The U.S. Supreme Court accepts only a small fraction of the appeals filed with it.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Chanhassen Villager, said he tried “a bit of a novel argument” with the Supreme Court, arguing that if small news organizations have to spend huge sums defending their First Amendment rights, then as a practical matter they don’t have freedom of speech.

Julianne Ortman, a state senator who represents Workman, a former state representative, called that argument “an extremely long shot.”

In 2004, the jury in the first trial found for Workman on both of his claims that he was libeled by the editorials dealing with the firing of a longtime county administrator. It awarded him $425,000 in compensatory damages and $200,500 in punitive damages.

The appeals court struck down the finding that Workman was defamed by the newspaper’s criticism of how Workman and colleagues terminated the administrator, but agreed that Workman was defamed when the newspaper’s incorrectly said Workman had been sued by the county a few years earlier. The appeals court said the case should go back to Carver County District Court for a new trial to determine the damages on the remaining count. The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to intervene.

Ortman said she expects the trial court to hold a scheduling conference in the next couple weeks. Anfinson said he will ask the judge to throw out what’s left of the lawsuit. Otherwise, Anfinson said, he would expect a new trial sometime after the 2007 legislative session. Ortman, however, said she thought a trial could be held sooner.

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