News flash! Politics can be a very dirty game. Dirty even in relatively small towns like my hometown of Tustin, where I ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the City Council in November 2000. In fact, after that election, a Times editorial remarked on how nasty the 2000 local elections were: "Some contests, notably in Irvine and Tustin, were marked with mudslinging and hit pieces sent out just days before balloting, making questionable personal attacks on candidates. Some of those may also result in lawsuits."
Well, The Times was right. In Irvine, winning City Council candidate Chris Mears filed a lawsuit over allegations that the able attorney and local columnist had evaded taxes for numerous years. The allegations were unambiguously proved to be false, but Mears simply settled the case in exchange for a formal, public apology. He recognized that it's not so easy for a public figure to prove defamation in the courtroom. And even if one is successful, it's yet another thing to receive a judgment for monetary damages.
In my campaign, I was well-positioned to win, but a last-minute smear piece cost me the election. Among other lies, the mailer alleged that Ken Morrison "took a walk on his student loan." As I proved in Superior Court, I never had a student loan in my life. The court awarded me $5,000 plus costs, the maximum amount allowed under law because I filed my lawsuit in the court's Small Claims division.
Even though I am a lawyer and am able to represent myself, I made the very calculated decision to file my claim in Small Claims Court because I was simply seeking to vindicate my reputation and wanted a swift verdict. In fact, I was never interested in the money and intend to donate the proceeds to good-government charities.
More important, I regarded my case as somewhat of a test and now want to encourage future political candidates (especially those who are not lawyers or very wealthy) to use my approach to fight back against the repulsive tactics of personal destruction and character assassination. Campaigns certainly can be spirited and aggressive, but the line is clearly crossed when outright lies are made to destroy decent people.
When used wisely, Small Claims Court can be a useful weapon in relatively modest local campaigns to help keep political candidates honest and accountable for what they say about their opponents. And for those harmed, it's a way to get a little quick justice.
However, to help ensure an award for damages, defamed candidates should make sure to incur expenses in responding directly to the defamatory remarks. This can be done by sending out a response mailer or taking out a paid advertisement in the local newspaper.
If they make sure to spend at least $5,000, they will have a much easier time getting the maximum award. The legal burden for proving economic damages incurred as a result of responding directly to the lies is much lower than for proving noneconomic or exemplary damages.
If more victims of these filthy campaign tactics use this route to vindication, it won't take long to get the word out to the local slime crowd that it will cost them an additional $5,000 out of their own pockets each time they cross that clear line. In addition, each courtroom judgment against them will mean some negative publicity exposing them for the liars they are.
As with Mears and in all too many other cases, my political opponents never attacked me on any issue of substance; it was only character assassination. And all too often, as in the Mears case and mine, if opposition research fails to find any dirt on a clean opponent, desperate candidates hellbent on winning at all costs simply will fabricate something to discredit their honorable competitors.
We are plagued by these horrendous dirty tricks because, until voters start to reject them, they work. In the meantime, it's up to candidates to fight back and send the message that spreading outright lies and engaging in personal attacks and character assassination are not simply par for the course in local politics.
Ken Morrison is an attorney and retail business owner. He has served as a nonpartisan political watchdog in various capacities for the city of Irvine, the U.S. Senate and the Government Accountability Project. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.