|A stretch limousine used
for Tuscaloosa election
It started with a photo of one candidate wearing a penis nose, plus evidence that the same candidate has roundabout ties to the Gambino and Genovese crime families. (And this guy won!) It ended with national headlines about e-mails that offered free drinks for sorority girls to vote, plus transportation to the polls via stretch limousine.
For good measure, Alabama Public Radio provided a serious tone to the proceedings by reporting that the election might have involved violations of state law.
As for the wacky stuff, the most amusing moment--at least to me--has gone largely unreported in the press.
It involves school-board candidate Lee "Penis Nose" Garrison (he of the Gambino/Genovese connections) issuing a statement to supporters about businessman Stan Pate, who allegedly erected a billboard and a Web site to poke fun at the Garrison campaign and encourage votes for the other candidate.
For some reason, Garrison failed to see the humor in Pate's antics. So here is part of Garrison's statement to his followers:
My response is simply this, I pray for Stan. I pray for God to help him in only the way that God can heal. My family is very upset over what he has done, but we forgive him for his actions and I pray that Tuscaloosa will do the same.
Now, isn't that nice. But here is the kicker: While Lee Garrison was down on his knees, earnestly beseeching the Almighty to save Stan Pate's soul, Garrison's attorney (Lisa L. Woods, of Birmingham) had other ideas--she was sending letters that threaten legal action against Pate. (The letters can be viewed at the end of this post.)
Way to show some love for your fellow man there, Mr. "Penis Nose"! Do you have a divine revelation that part of God's plan to help Stan Pate involves a side trip to the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse? How very Christian, indeed!
Let's take a look at some of Lee Garrison's Christian charity toward Stan Pate--on full display in missives Attorney Woods sent to W. Cam Parsons, counsel for Pate, and to Mr. Pate himself. Here is my favorite part of the letter to Pate's lawyer:
Given your years in practice, I am certain that you understand that, sometimes, things are said in the course of divorce and post-divorce matters that are not true. Simply stating that some third party "swore" to such information does not make the statements true. That said, we ask that you advise Mr. Pate to take his website down and refrain from making or repeating false statements against my client.
We learn from this that Lee Garrison is alarmed about information that Stan Pate apparently gleaned from a court filing in Garrison's divorce case. Ms. Woods takes much the same approach in her letter to Pate:
You have posted a court filing, purportedly by Ms. Jessica Garrison and/or her counsel. It is our position that the statements contained in the same were false then and are false now. An Objection and Response to those false allegations was filed on my client's behalf. We notice that you did not bother to place that document on your post. We perceive this as disregard for the truth in your posting.
Notice that Garrison's lawyer states it's "our position" that statements in the court filing were false. Further notice that Garrison's lawyer states "we perceive" Pate's failure to also publish an Objection to the filing point to his disregard for the truth in the posting. Finally, notice that Garrison's lawyer offers no law to support her claim that Pate's publication of a court filing is defamatory.
That's because no such law exists. In fact, the general rule is that statements made in judicial proceedings carry absolute immunity and cannot be made the basis of a defamation claim. The Alabama Supreme Court spelled this out in a case styled Barnett v. Mobile County Personnel Board, 536 So. 2d 46 (Ala., 1988). In that case, the high court describes the kinds of documents that carry immunity:
There is another class of privileged communications where the privilege is absolute. They are defined in Hastings v. Lusk, 22 Wend. [N.Y.] 410, 34 Am.Dec. 330. In this class are included slanderous statements made by parties, counsel, or witnesses in the course of judicial proceedings, and ... libelous charges in pleadings, affidavits, or other papers used in the course of the prosecution or defense of an action. In questions falling within this absolute privilege the question of malice has no place. However malicious the intent, or however false the charge may have been, the law, from considerations of public policy, and to secure the unembarrassed and efficient administration of justice, denies to the defamed party any remedy through an action for libel or slander.
Why is this the case in Alabama--and across the country? The Barnett court explains:
The doctrine of absolute immunity for statements in judicial proceedings reflects a judgment that the need for completely free speech for litigants is dominant, and that this freedom is not to be endangered by subjecting parties to the burden of defending their motives in subsequent slander litigation, or to the risk that juries may misapprehend those motives.
Lee Garrison and his lawyer should know that Stan Pate cannot be held liable for publishing a court document that is public record. (By the way, I published the same modification of custody filing to the Scribd document-sharing Web site and here on Legal Schnauzer; in fact, that's probably how Stan Pate became aware of it. If Ms. Woods thinks Stan Pate has engaged in defamation, then I guess I will have to brace myself for a threatening letter from her.)
If the lawyer doesn't know simple provisions of defamation law, she needs to give up her bar card and go into a different line of work. If Lee Garrison doesn't know the law, and understand it, he needs to exit the political arena and enter a field outside the public spotlight, where his feelings won't so easily be bruised.