MANHATTAN (CN) — Even if she wins, she'll lose. A federal judge said Monday he would dismiss Sarah Palin’s defamation case against The New York Times for insufficient evidence as soon as the jury returns with its verdict, regardless of how they rule.
U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff made the announcement this afternoon while jurors were in their sixth hours of deliberations, citing the high standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court for public figures to show "actual malice" when they say a media outlet defamed them.
“Accordingly, I will ultimately issue an order pursuant to Rule 50 dismissing the complaint, but I will only do so after the jury has returned its verdict. They, of course, will not know my decision,” said Rakoff, a Clinton appointee who is the same judge to throw out Palin’s case five years ago for failing to sufficiently plead malice.
Palin finally brought her suit against the Times to trial this month after a Second Circuit reversal, but Rakoff said there is little chance of a second resurrection.
“And therefore we will have both the benefit of my decision on the law and their decision on the facts on the different standard that they apply and therefore a court of appeals will have the benefit of both determinations before it when it,” Rakoff explained on Monday, anticipating another inevitable appeal in the nearly 5-year-old case.
Judge Rakoff dismissed the jury without a verdict shortly before 5 p.m. on Monday, wishing them Happy Valentine's Day and reminding them to not pay any attention to media coverage of the trial.
Palin sued the Times back in 2017 after her name appeared in a June 14 article by the Times editorial board on the day gunfire broke out at a congressional baseball practice. The editorial titled “America’s Lethal Politics” blamed overheated political rhetoric with inciting gun violence, and it focused in particular on a map that a political action committee for Palin had released featuring the stylized crosshairs of a gun over several election districts controlled by Democrats. Sometime after the map was disseminated, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who represented one of those districts, was shot in the head at a Congress on Your Corner event.
Though the Times called the link from the shooting to Palin "clear" and "direct," within 14 hours it had published a correction saying there was no such link. Indeed, no evidence has ever been established that the Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner saw the Palin PAC's map.
“I don’t mean to be misunderstood," Rakoff said Monday. "I think this is an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times.
"Having said that, that’s not the issue here before this court. My job is apply the law, the law here sets a very high standard for actual malice and in this case, the court finds that that standard has not been met.”
A jury made up of six women and three men began deliberations on Friday afternoon after seven days of testimony from Palin herself and James Bennet, a former opinion editor for the Times who had heavily edited the editorial about gun biolence.
“I’m not altogether too happy to make this decision on behalf of the defendant, as I indicated earlier, I am troubled by the fact that the erroneous edits made by Mr. Bennett reasonably could be read by many readers as an accusation that Ms. Palin’s PAC’s distribution of the crosshairs map was clearly and directly linked to the Loughner shooting and committing murders,” Rakoff said.
“And, as I mentioned this morning, I’m hardly surprised that Ms. Palin brought this lawsuit.”
“Ms. Palin was subjected to an ultimately unsupported and very serious allegation that Mr. Bennett chose to revisit seven years or so after the underlying events.”
Representatives for the New York Times said the newspaper welcomed Judge Rakoff's decision to toss out Palin's libel suit. "It is a reaffirmation of a fundamental tenet of American law: public figures should not be permitted to use libel suits to punish or intimidate news organizations that make, acknowledge and swiftly correct unintentional errors," a spokesperson said Monday afternoon.
Palin’s lawsuit does not seek recovery of lost income, but claims she is entitled to at least $75,000 in damages “for the cost of repairing her reputation and/or the cost of correcting the defamatory statement.”
Just last week, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff took punitive damages off the table. The verdict sheet, now moot, contains one box for the jury to check: liable or not liable, with another box for monetary damages if the Times loses.
During closing summations on Friday, attorney David Axelrod for the Times said Palin's many paid appearances in the years following “America’s Lethal Politics” undercut her claim of reputational harm. In between speeches with the conservative activism group Turning Point USA, Palin even performed the rap anthem “Baby Got Back” on Fox's "The Masked Singer."
Axelrod called the case “incredibly important because it’s about freedom of the press. ”The First Amendment protects journalists “who make an honest mistake when they write about a person like Sarah Palin … That’s all this was about — an honest mistake,” Axelrod said.
Jurors will continue their third day of deliberations Tuesday morning.