The legal system is rigged

Jeff vonKaenel

This story would be funny, except that it’s true. Citing the cost of defending meritless lawsuits, the American Bar Association chickened out and refused to publish a report that they had commissioned on Donald Trump’s ligation history. It’s worth quoting from the report itself:

“Donald J. Trump is a libel bully. Like most bullies, he’s also a loser, to borrow from Trump’s vocabulary.

“Trump and his companies have been involved in a mind-boggling 4,000 lawsuits over the last 30 years and sent countless threatening cease-and-desist letters to journalists and critics.

“But the GOP presidential nominee and his companies have never won a single speech-related case filed in a public court.”

In internal documents obtained by The New York Times, Bar Association Deputy Executive Director James Dimos, objecting to language such as “libel bully,” wanted the report changed in light of “the … views of ABA staff who are charged with managing the reputational and financial risk to the association.”

The bar association suggested edits that would, according to the report’s author, First Amendment attorney and former journalist Susan Seager, take “out every word that was slightly critical of Donald Trump.”

By backing down, the American Bar Association proved, in case the article hadn’t already made it clear, that lawsuits can intimidate people and organizations, even when those organizations might have had access to free legal defense.

What about cases where the defendants don’t have tons of money or pro bono attorneys? The conventional wisdom is: Even if the bully does not have a case, give up. The cost of defending the case will wipe you out. Let the bully win.

Last week, SN&R received a notification from the Sacramento City Attorney’s office that they have uncovered nearly 300 previously unreported emails from the office of Mayor Kevin Johnson. These emails will be reviewed following the process specified by the previous court ruling to determine whether they can be released to SN&R, or whether doing so would violate Kevin Johnson’s attorney-client privilege.

Back in March of 2015, SN&R and The Sacramento Bee filed California Public Records Act requests asking the City of Sacramento to release emails. We wanted to understand how and why the mayor’s staff used private Gmail accounts to do city business. The mayor responded with a lawsuit blocking our request, claiming that some of these emails were privileged communication between him and his attorneys during his attempt to take over the leadership of the National Conference of Black Mayors.

At the time, The Bee, like the American Bar Association, backed down. We didn’t. Now, many months later, hundreds of emails have been released and it is clear that city employees were spending their time working on noncity business. We know much more about the mayor’s “coup” of the National Conference of Black Mayors. And the News & Review has a legal bill exceeding $100,000.

The court is currently considering whether the News & Review is entitled to recover these attorney fees. $100,000 is a lot of money for a small newspaper. This meritless lawsuit cost us more than two reporters’ salaries for a whole year. We so appreciate our readers who have donated to our legal defense fund. And we are hoping that the court rules that we will have our legal fees reimbursed.

If not, the bullies win again.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.