Law court sends Nader case over 2004 election back to lower court

Posted April 19, 2012, at 5:24 p.m.
Last modified April 19, 2012, at 5:53 p.m.
Ralph Nader
Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Ralph Nader

PORTLAND, Maine — Ralph Nader will get another day in court.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday vacated a lower court’s decision in Nader’s lawsuit over challenges that sought to keep him off the 2004 presidential ballot.

The high court’s ruling, written by Justice Donald Alexander, reversed a decision by Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy that dismissed the lawsuit and awarded one of the defendants $1 in legal fees.

In his ruling concerning legal fees, Cuddy said the case “raise[d] significant questions concerning the appropriate judicial interpretation” of the anti-SLAPP statute and urged the high court to review it.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Maine’s anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 1995, according to previously published reports, with the intention of protecting activists who are sued by real estate developers for speaking out against proposed projects. Typical SLAPP suits have no merit and are filed only to impose litigation costs.

The justices Thursday did change the standard that lower court judges should use to determine whether to grant a motion to dismiss in cases challenging the anti-SLAPP statute.

In its ruling, the supreme court instructed the lower court to determine whether “Nader can present sufficient evidence to make a prima facie showing that any of the [Maine Democratic Party’s] and the [Ballot Project’s] petitioning activities, including action in Maine, were devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable legal basis and resulted in actual injury to him,” Alexander wrote.

To succeed in the abuse of process claim, Nader’s attorneys would have to show that the use of “process was done in a manner improper in the regular conduct of the proceeding” and the existence of an “ulterior motive” in that process.

“Justice Cuddy will have to decide whether they have presented enough evidence to proceed to trial and that we did not make credible argument the first time to have the case dismissed,” Stephen Langsdorf, the Augusta attorney for the Maine Democratic Party, said Thursday. “I feel very good about going back to Justice Cuddy and having him decide the case the same way he did before.”

Attorney Lynne Williams of Bar Harbor, who represented Nader and the other plaintiffs, disagreed.

“There’s a policy at issue here,” she said of the original lawsuit. “The two main parties need to recognize that they can’t use dirty tricks, a la Nixon, to keep third party candidates and independent candidates off the ballot.”

The Nader suit stemmed from the 2004 presidential election when Democrats and others filed 29 complaints against his campaign in 19 states, including Maine, in an effort to keep Nader and his running mate, the late Peter Camejo, off the ballot, according to previously published reports. Nader and Camejo did make it on the ballots in 34 states, including Maine, but Republican President George W. Bush won re-election.

Nader and co-plaintiffs Christopher Droznick, Nancy Oden and Rosemary Whittaker, all of Maine, filed the lawsuit in Washington County 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, party officials and the Ballot Project Inc., a supporting organization.

Cuddy dismissed the case in 2010, saying the state’s anti-SLAPP statute compelled him to do so.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case in September in Portland. Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley and Justices Jon Levy, Andrew Mead and Ellen Gorman joined Alexander in the majority opinion. Justices Warren Silver and Joseph Jabar issued a concurring opinion.

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