Saturday, September 12, 2020

Defamation case against Trump fits woeful pattern, while DOJ defense is defensible, if disconcerting

Notice of Removal in Carroll v. Trump
The recent news (e.g., N.Y. Times) that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will defend the President in the defamation suit arising from sexual-assault allegations by E. Jean Carroll has caught the interest of both my Torts I class and my Trump Litigation Seminar (TLS).  The DOJ's announcement manifests on the docket in removal of the case from the New York Supreme Court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.  Links and key court documents are now posted atop The Savory Tort's TLS blogsite.

The strategy of using a sexual-assault denial and accompanying charge that the accuser is a "liar" as the basis for a defamation suit against the alleged perpetrator, i.e., Carroll v. Trump, is now, unfortunately, a familiar feature of our high-profile tort-litigation landscape.  It might have been Bill Cosby who committed the pattern to popular culture's long-term memory.  The Cosby case came complete with counterclaims, making the defamation dispute the dueling ground for truth and falsity.

It's unfortunate, because the tort of defamation was not designed to be a truth-finding mechanism.  Historically, truth wasn't even a defense; that's a modern artifact inferred by the freedom of speech.  The flaws in our defamation law are legion and one of my favorite subjects; one that matters here is that defamation is rarely capable of delivering exoneration, much less satisfying any of a plaintiff's legitimate aims.

Among reforms of defamation that have been proposed over the years are mechanisms to ferret out and publicize truth, rather than focusing on the plaintiff's alleged injury or the defendant's asserted rights.  Though not always well crafted, laws that incentivize correction or settlement over protracted litigation at least aim in the right direction.  Regrettably, reform of defamation has been hamstrung for decades by the Supreme Court's well intentioned but ultimately improvident constitutionalization of defamation in the 1960s and 1970s.  I hope one day, we'll wade our way out of that morass.

Anyway, on the question of the DOJ's intervention, there's a curious conundrum about Carroll v. Trump.  The DOJ position is that Trump was acting in the scope of the office of the President when he denied Carroll's sexual-assault allegations.  We would, after all, hope that any President would deny such allegations, and we would have to admit that the truth of the allegations bears on his fitness for office.  Thus, the DOJ reasons, it must represent the position of the President.  The bitter pill for Trump opponents to swallow is that that's probably right.

The kicker comes in that Trump's denial is only presidential if he's telling the truth.  If he did what Carroll alleged, then the operative facts of the case occurred before Trump was elected.  His later denial then feels more like the mere pleading of a private defendant in an ordinary civil suit.  You know, one in which we might debate what the meaning of is is.  So the rationale for defense by DOJ is predicated on the very question at issue in the litigation.  For DOJ to take the President's denial as true, for now, is a fair, if uncomfortable, choice.  If one day the court rules in Carroll's favor, though, maybe we can send the legal bill to the former President.

Thanks to TLS student Ricardo Serrano and Torts student Paul McAlarney for helping me think about this one.

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