A lawsuit that could punish speech against a wealthy political donor could finally land before a judge who accepted campaign donations from the billionaire who filed the lawsuit. lever Found a review. The plaintiffs, fossil fuel companies, also funded political groups that boosted the judge’s election bids.
Kelsey Warren, who controls the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and has a net worth of $5.3 billion, is suing former Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Campaign comments about Beto O’Rourke could set a new legal precedent for financially punishing politicians. A candidate who criticizes billionaire political spending.
January 20th, lever A rule that reported on Warren’s lawsuit when O’Rourke contested a $1 million donation to Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Republican).
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If Warren appeals the negative lower court ruling, the case could go to the Supreme Court of Texas, where three judges receive campaign funding directly from Warren.
In addition, Warren and his company, Energy Transfer Partners, are spending $1 million to raise Super PAC funding to support leading candidates on that court. One of these super PACs, he has recently come under scrutiny for influencing a judicial decision in Texas.
If he wins, Warren will be able to score a landmark victory for wealthy political contributors to influence elections while isolating them from scrutiny over their influence.
Is the billionaire chairman a public figure?
A savvy businessman with a ruthless sense of profit, Warren has grown Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners into a $40 billion company over 40 years in the oil and gas business. At Energy Transfer Partners, he boasts that he has 120,000 miles of pipe carrying “nearly 30% of the natural gas and oil produced in the United States.” Warren is also a longtime political donor.
In February 2022, Warren sued O’Rourke over comments made by a former congressman in his campaign to remove Abbott. O’Rourke allows Warren to donate his $1 million to Abbott and gas companies such as Energy Transfer to opt out of cold weather requirements designed to prevent blackouts during major storms It suggested there was a connection between the law and the law Abbott signed into law. (Warren had donated his $1.4 million to Abbott’s campaign over the past two decades.)
Abbott signed the bill into law in June 2021, months after a winter storm Uri devastated Texas and left hundreds dead. Energy Transfer said in May 2021 that the company posted his $2.4 billion windfall profit amid a storm. During the storm, power surged nearly 30,000% and natural gas surged more than 16,500%.
According to Warren’s lawsuit, O’Rourke defamed him by making comments such as: He’s a million dollars for Abbott’s campaign,” O’Rourke said. dallas morning news March 2022.
Arguments in the lawsuit focus on O’Rourke’s use of the term “bribery” to describe Warren’s $1 million donation. O’Rourke’s attorney, Chad Dunn, briefly states that it is used in a “non-defamatory, colloquial sense.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said exaggerated rhetoric in political exchanges is to be expected,” said Jane Cartley, a professor of media ethics at the University of Minnesota Law School. pointed out.
Warren’s case, which has spillovers beyond Texas, could help set a national precedent for who courts can rule as “public figures for limited purposes.”
In a 1974 case, the Supreme Court defined a “limited purpose public figure” as “a person who voluntarily invests himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure in a limited range of issues. defined as a person.
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If the court finds Warren to be such a public figure, Warren would have to reach a high standard to prove that O’Rourke had “actual malice” in speaking out about Warren and Abbott. I have.
However, if the court finds that Warren is simply a private individual, the plaintiff is bound to a much lower standard and only needs to prove that O’Rourke was guilty of “negligence.”
Warren and his legal team allege the oil tycoon is a private person under defamation laws, even though he is a huge donor and billionaire executive chairman of a Fortune 500 listed company doing. Warren’s position was summarized by Dean Pamphyllis of Kasowitz Benson & Torres, an attorney led by former President Donald Trump’s longtime attorney Mark Kasowitz.
“The conclusion they are asking you here is that a million dollar (or otherwise) campaign contribution makes you a celebrity and exposes you to attacks that cannot be defended unless you prove actual malice. Pamphilis said at a December 7 hearing in the Third Circuit Court:
Underneath that argument is an attempt to create a positive new legal doctrine. That is, billionaires shouldn’t subject their huge campaign contributions to additional scrutiny, and it should be much easier for billionaires to sue over political statements about their campaign contributions. .
“If I had to characterize this suit, I would call it the SLAPP suit,” Kirtley affirms. “Criticism and commentary on what this individual has done has been silenced.” An acronym for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation,” the SLAPP lawsuit uses defamation and defamation laws to harass critics. By silencing it, they seek to quell free debate.
Texas has anti-SLAPP laws, but Abbott signed legislation in 2019 to weaken them, restricting the ways defendants can seek dismissal of lawsuits.
Kelsey Warren’s Money Trail
Warren’s case is widely expected to be lost in the court currently pending in the Texas Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is composed of Democrats.
But six of the nine justices in Texas, all of whom are backed by either generous campaign funds from Warren or groups funded by companies led by Warren, all reached the Republican Supreme Court. In that case, the outcome of the lawsuit is less certain.
Dan, O’Rourke’s attorney, said in a statement: lever “The matter will likely go to the Texas Supreme Court,” he said.
Sitting in the courtroom are Justices John Phillip Devine, Jimmy Blackrock, and Brett Busby, who received $6,250 in campaign funds directly from Warren. Unlike federal judges and many state Supreme Court justices who are appointed, the Texas Supreme Court justice is elected staggering his six-year terms statewide.
Warren’s company, Energy Transfer, also donated $1 million to a federal super PAC called Engage Texas, funded the Engage Texas PAC, and funded the Engage Texas PAC. Brett Busby, Nathan Hecht, Jane Brando — in the 2020 election.
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Judicial Impartiality PAC was also at the center of a recent scandal touting its influence in the Texas Supreme Court. On October 2, 2020, the court dismissed an appeal from a lower court’s ruling upholding her $900,000 judgment against Apache Corp, a Fortune 500 oil exploration company based in Houston. Then, on October 26, 2020, Apache funneled his $250,000 into the Judicial Fairness PAC. This PAC is indirectly supported by Energy Transfer. On June 25, 2021, the court overturned the previous judgment and reversed the judgment against Apache.
Two of the four judges PAC supported in the 2020 election have resigned as they worked on the case before it went to the High Court. The other two did not reject themselves. Texas’ rules do not address campaign contributions as they relate to dismissal, and only six of the 42 states with judicial elections for appellate judges allow the litigants or their attorneys to It limits the ability of judges to decide whether to dismiss campaign contributions on their own. Texas rules require declining if “the judge’s impartiality could reasonably be questioned.”
Since 2018, Energy Transfer has donated $340,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee (and $200,000 during the 2020 election cycle), and RSLC has contributed to the Texas Supreme Court campaign during the 2020 election cycle. contributed $300,000 to the Texas-based Justice Justice PAC for independent spending. .
“The judge’s decision could be motivated by a desire to repay campaign contributors.”
Legal experts say that Warren’s support for a Texas Supreme Court judge could put the court in a position to forbid criticism of its own decisions by ruling in Warren’s favor.
Warren and Energy Transfer Partners’ endorsement of the Texas Supreme Court nominee “just underscores the need to allow people to speak freely about their campaign contributions,” Warren said throughout the lawsuit. The speech, which is about to become a First Amendment attorney and advocacy director for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, advocates for the rights of journalists, according to First Amendment Seth Stern. “The media and the public have the right to discuss the functioning of the judiciary.”
He said the Texas Supreme Court ruling in favor of Warren’s case “represents the ability of the public to discuss and the ability of the press to report on issues of very public importance, including issues before the Texas Supreme Court.” would impair,” he added.
Law professor Cartley said: lever “The question of who gives money to judges and what expectations they have is a good one. Suppressing it is not a good thing. Affiliation is important to give the full picture.It seems to me that this person does not want this story to be told.”
The case could eventually be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has previously expressed concern about the huge amounts of money pouring into the country’s legal race. In 2019 and his 2020 cycle, $97 million flowed into judicial elections statewide, according to data collected by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.
Former Judge Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her 2002 judgment: Judiciary. “
In a 2009 lawsuit in which former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship sought to influence state justice, former Judge Anthony Kennedy wrote on behalf of the majority: Interests in a particular case may be material and disproportionate in placing a judge in the case, raising funds or directing a judge’s campaign while the case is pending or imminent. had a balanced effect. “
That said, with Sam Alito and Brett Kavanaugh replacing O’Connor and Kennedy, the new conservative-dominated 6-3 court could prove more favorable for Warren. I have.
Three of the nine Supreme Court justices were appointed by Trump. Warren donated his $10 million to pro-Trump super-PAC, America First Action, in August 2020, becoming his fourth-largest donor to the group. The fossil fuel executive also hosted a fundraiser for Trump at his home in Dallas.