Former vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R-AK) lawsuit against the New York Times for defamation can proceed, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
“This case is ultimately about the First Amendment, but the subject matter implicated in this appeal is far less dramatic: rules of procedure and pleading standards,” began the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, appointed by Bill Clinton, had dismissed Palin’s complaint for failing to state a plausible claim. A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit disagreed, reinstating the lawsuit.
The lawsuit arose in the aftermath of depraved Tucson shooter Jared Loughner’s murderous rampage in Tucson in 2011 – killing six people, including a federal judge, John Roll – and seriously wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Palin’s political committee, SarahPAC, had run ads surrounding Congress’s voting on the Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”), with “a map that superimposed the image of a crosshairs target over certain Democratic congressional districts.”
“In the wake of the Loughner shooting, some speculated that the shooting was connected to the crosshairs map,” the Second Circuit continued.
“No evidence ever emerged to establish the link,” Judge John Walker wrote for the panel. “In fact, the criminal investigation of Loughner indicated that his animosity toward Representative Giffords had arisen before SarahPAC published the map.”
When left-wing fanatic James Hodgkinson opened fire in 2017 in an effort to assassinate Republican congressmen, severely wounding conservative Steve Scalise (R-LA), the New York Times ran an editorial citing SarahPAC’s ad from 2011, commented that the “link to political incitement was clear” to the Loughner shooting, then went on to discuss Hodgkinson’s act of domestic terrorism.
“The Times faced an immediate backlash for publishing the editorial,” Walker continued, noting that the paper later published a correction which admitted that in fact, “no such link was established.”
Palin sued the Times for defamation in federal court 12 days after the editorial ran, and the Times filed a motion to dismiss the case.
The case then “took an unusual procedural turn,” the New York City-based appeals court observed, when the judge “held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to dismiss.”
Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court must generally accept the facts alleged by a plaintiff as true, and cannot dismiss a case for failing to make a claim unless, even if all the claimed facts are true, the law would still be on the side of the defendant.
“On August 29, 2017, the district court, relying on evidence adduced at the hearing, granted the Times’ motion to dismiss,” the panel recounted.
The appellate court noted that a district court cannot consider evidence outside a plaintiff’s complaint in a motion to dismiss, and instead must convert that motion to one for summary judgment if the judge wants to decide the case at that stage. However, once a court moves into summary-judgment territory, both sides must have the opportunity to present their evidence and argument.
“Even if the plaintiff had been given notice and the court had explicitly converted the motion to one for summary judgment,” the Second Circuit reasoned, “we would still have to vacate because the district court’s opinion relied on credibility determinations not permissible at any stage before trial.”
The Second Circuit concluded that Palin stated a plausible claim of defamation, and must now be given an opportunity to present evidence to make her case.
The panel in question was comprised of two Republican-appointed judges and one judge appointed by Barack Obama. The decision in Palin’s favor was unanimous.
“This is – and always has been – a case about media accountability,” Palin’s lawyer Libby Locke told Breitbart News. “We are pleased with the court’s decision, and look forward to starting discovery and ultimately proceeding to trial.”
The case is Palin v. New York Times Co., No. 17-3801-cv in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and No. 17-cv-4853 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Ken Klukowski is senior legal analyst for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.