Washington Loses Landmark Anti-SLAPP Law

     OLYMPIA, Wash. (CN) – A Washington law that prevents litigants from hauling their opponents into court as an intimidation tactic violates the right to trial by jury, the state Supreme Court ruled.
     Short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, a typical SLAPP suit involves a litigant who uses the judicial system to silence or intimidate a critic.
     Over a quarter-century ago, Washington became the first state to adopt an anti-SLAPP law designed to quickly remove frivolous lawsuits that abuse courts’ resources.
     The complaint that has the law against the ropes now stems from a dispute among board members at the Olympia Food Cooperative, a nonprofit grocery store corporation.
     Though the board lacked staff consensus, it adopted a boycott of Israeli foods to make a statement about what some perceived as Israel’s human rights violations.
     Five co-op members in turn sued 16 board members, claiming the boycott violated the co-op’s own policy and should be voided.
     The defendant board members successfully struck the action under the anti-SLAPP statute, and an appellate panel affirmed.
     Thursday’s reversal by the Washington Supreme Court finds the anti-SLAPP law itself unconstitutional.
     Though the Legislature enacted its anti-SLAPP law “to prevent vexatious litigants from abusing the judicial process by filing frivolous lawsuits for improper purposes,” the court found that RCW 4.24.525 leaves a “constitutional conundrum” in its wake.
     Namely, the law “seeks to protect one group of citizen’s constitutional rights of expression and petition-by cutting off another group’s constitutional rights of petition and jury trial,” Justice Debra Stephens wrote for the court.
     “This the legislature cannot do,” she added.
     Stephens emphasized that “the statute mandates dismissal of a claim and imposition of sanctions merely because the claim cannot establish by clear and convincing evidence a probability of prevailing at trial.”
     Washington law already stipulates that there is no right to a jury trial for frivolous claims, according to the ruling.
     “Exclusion of such claims comports with the long-standing principle that litigants cannot be allowed to abuse the heavy machinery of the judicial process for improper purposes that cause serious harm to innocent victims, such as to harass, cause delay, or chill free expression,” Stephens wrote. “Such conduct has always been, and always will be, sanctionable.”

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