Judge seeks review of anti-SLAPP law

Posted Jan. 04, 2011, at 10:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 05, 2011, at 9:42 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — In November, when Justice Kevin Cuddy tossed out an election-tampering lawsuit filed in Washington County Superior Court by national activist Ralph Nader, he said he was compelled to dismiss the case based on Maine’s anti-SLAPP law.

But now, in a four-page order issued Dec. 28, Cuddy is stating that Maine’s anti-SLAPP law, which was intended to curb frivolous lawsuits, needs further review by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Only three cases concerning the anti-SLAPP law have ever been reviewed by the state supreme court, and in his ruling Cuddy said “significant questions” will need to be answered by the court during an appeal.

In his order, Cuddy wrote, the claims filed by plaintiff Ralph Nader “warranted further analysis and development through the evolution of normal civil litigation process,” but were dismissed in November based on Cuddy’s conclusion that Maine’s anti-SLAPP statute required that he do so.

Thus, Cuddy wrote, this case “raises significant questions concerning the appropriate judicial interpretation” of the anti-SLAPP statute.

An appeal in the Nader case is pending before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Maine’s anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995, with the intention of protecting activists who are sued by real estate developers for speaking out against proposed projects (such actions are known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). Typical SLAPP suits have no merit and are filed only to impose litigation costs, Nader’s attorney, Oliver Hall of Washington, D.C., said Tuesday.

Hall maintains this is exactly what happened during the Nader-Camejo presidential campaign in 2004 when Democrats and their allies filed 29 complaints against the campaign in 19 states, including Maine, in an effort to keep Nader and his running mate, the late Peter Camejo, off the ballot. Nader and Camejo did make it on the ballots in 34 states, including Maine, but Republican George W. Bush won the election.

Nader and co-plaintiffs Christopher Droznick, Nancy Oden and Rosemary Whittaker, all of Maine, filed the lawsuit in Machias Superior Court in November 2009, after the statute of limitations ran out in every other state. The suit charged civil conspiracy, wrongful use of civil proceedings and abuse of process against the Maine Democratic Party, its former Chair Dorothy Melanson, the Democratic National Committee, its former Chair Terry McAuliffe, the Kerry-Edwards 2004 campaign, a Section 527 political organization called The Ballot Project, and its former head, Toby Moffett.

After Cuddy tossed the case in November, defendants in the case sought to have attorney fees paid by Nader. In this most current ruling, Cuddy awarded them $1.

“We are pleased that Justice Cuddy placed the appropriate value on the defendants’ position in this case,” Nader said Tuesday, in a statement released through Hall.

“Furthermore, by taking the unusual step of suggesting that he would not have dismissed this case if the anti-SLAPP statute had not compelled him to do so, Justice Cuddy has alerted the Law Court to the serious questions of civil liberties and constitutional rights that must be decided in our pending appeal.”

In his order, Cuddy said this case is not “typical” of the “mischief” that the anti-SLAPP statute intended to remedy, but nevertheless found that the statute applied, based on his view of its “broad interpretation and application” by the Law Court.

“The Law Court should take a long, hard look at Maine’s anti-SLAPP statute,” Nader said, “because it has made it virtually impossible to bring valid claims for misuse and abuse of judicial processes, which Maine courts have recognized for nearly 100 years or more.”

Hall said that during the appeal process, the supreme court must decide whether the anti-SLAPP statute applies in this case.

Hall also said that Cuddy’s decision to allow only $1 in fees would now allow the appeal to go forward without the fear that expensive attorney’s fees are accruing.

“We are pleased that our claims can be heard on appeal without the imposition of costs and fees,” Nader said. “A grave injustice was perpetrated against the rights of voters in Maine and nationwide to have a free choice of candidates. We will pursue this case until we finally have our day in court, so that we may take discovery and present our evidence to a jury.”

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