Virginia Judge Calls for Discovery in Nunes Defamation Suit

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CN) — A lawsuit California Congressman Devin Nunes filed in Virginia against California-based media giant McClatchy will live to see another day after a judge called Wednesday for more discovery on personal jurisdiction.

Nunes, who seeks $150 million in damages, brought the suit last year in Albemarle Circuit Court, claiming that the publisher had conspired with Republican operative Elizabeth Mair to tarnish his reputation.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., right, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, joined by Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, speaks on Nov. 21, 2019, during President Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing. (Matt McClain/Pool Photo)

Purporting to have been injured in Virginia, Nunes cites a story published in his local paper, The Fresno Bee, that linked his winery to a charity cruise company involved in cocaine- and prostitute-fueled parties.

Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins found it premature Wednesday to decide whether the rural court is the proper venue, releasing a 3-page order this afternoon that grants some discovery requests from Nunes. The requests included advertising contacts, tax documents and a list of any times an employee of the publisher was physically present in Virginia.

“The court questions whether all the necessary information on this issue can be established by discovery or whether it will require additional testimony,” Higgins wrote.

Higgins also offered McClatchy the chance to conduct discovery, pending court approval.

Steven Biss, a Charlottesville-based attorney for Nunes, has argued in prior court filings that Virginia is a valid venue since the newspaper has readers there. Biss did not return requests for comment Wednesday, but McClatchy’s lawyer said he appreciated the court’s  attention to the issues at hand.

“Virginia is not the place for this baseless suit by a California congressman against a California-based company about an article in a California newspaper describing a California lawsuit,” Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. with the Washington firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher said in an email.

This is the second notable defamation case Nunes has filed in Virginia state courts, with the first currently about 70 miles east of Albemarle in Henrico County. That case takes aim at a parody Twitter account purporting to be run by one of the congressman’s cows. In a decision slammed by free-speech advocates, a Henrico judge sided with Nunes in October and allowed the case to move forward.

Media experts note that Virginia has become a destination for SLAPP suits, short for strategic lawsuit against public participation, which often target critics using otherwise protected speech. The cases are typically dragged out to exhaust the funds of the defendants before ultimately leading in a settlement, withdrawal or dismissal on the merits.

The Nunes case, along with a claim filed by actor Johnny Depp against his ex-wife in a northern Virginia state court, have further highlighted the issue.

But Virginia lawmakers are fighting back against the state’s renown as a destination for SLAPP tourism. Just this month legislators passed efforts to update the state’s Anti-SLAPP laws to help curb such claims in state courts.

“It’s been great for business for me, I’ll continue to make money if it keeps happening, but my clients will keep paying the bills, [and] it’s not fair to them,” Senator Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, said at a press conference in January announcing the bill. Surovell is actually involved in one of the Nunes cases as he’s defending Democratic Operative Adam Parkhomenko who has been subpoenaed over possible connections to the Twitter cow.

“We need to have more remedies and balances in the system,” he said.

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