Spokane County District Judge Donna Wilson is suing The Spokesman-Review for more than $1.5 million, claiming the newspaper made up a story about her reading a book during a trial.
Wilson, acting as her own attorney in the lawsuit filed last week, claims the newspaper libeled her, invaded her privacy and subjected her to public ridicule with articles, columns and editorial cartoons published in 1993 and 1994.
Chris Peck, Editor of The Spokesman-Review, called the lawsuit unfortunate and unfounded.
“There’s no question but that our words and reporting were solid,” Peck said.
Daniel Finney, an attorney for the newspaper, called Wilson’s claims innovative but far-fetched. The newspaper would probably ask that the lawsuit be dismissed through a summary judgment, he said.
Wilson could not be reached by the newspaper for comment. She told The Associated Press that commenting on the lawsuit would be inappropriate.
First elected to the district bench in 1990, Wilson contends the newspaper libeled her in 1993 and 1994 when it published articles about allegations that she had read a paperback book while on the bench.
“The statements are false because they were written and published without sources and were made up from whole cloth by (reporter) William Miller,” Wilson said in her 42-page lawsuit. She promises to produce testimony from two persons named in stories who later said they did not make the statements attributed to them in the newspaper.
The newspaper has other witnesses who can corroborate the story, Peck said.
“A review of the allegations makes it clear that we have reliable sources for the material, and we continue to feel they are reliable,” he said.
Wilson contends the newspaper also defamed her by listing her as a member of “the Druid Club” in an information box accompanying her campaign profile.
But she acknowledges in the lawsuit she herself made the reference in an interview with reporter J. Todd Foster. Wilson said she made it as a form of banter during the interview, a reference to a joke made by newspaper columnist Doug Clark regarding the Astronomy Club.
Foster didn’t realize she was joking and included it in a short listing of biographical information.
“Reasonable people took the Druid slur seriously, in no small part due to (the newspaper’s) habit of seriously covering witches and witchcraft in the Spokane area,” she said in her suit.
Replied Peck: “She called herself a Druid. When her attorney called and said it was a mistake, we corrected it.”
Wilson said the newspaper’s articles, editorials and cartoons caused her to receive lower vote totals than other incumbent judges during her 1994 reelection campaign. She spent $113,506 on her campaign, receiving about 54 percent of the vote. Other incumbents spent an average of about $19,000 and received an average of 64 percent of the vote.
In her request for damages, she is seeking the difference between what she spent on the campaign and the average spending of the other judges. She’s also asking for $50,000 for each of the 28 times the newspaper published a story that she claims was libelous.
“The issue that she won by a smaller percentage than other judges is an odd basis for a libel suit,” Peck said. “The taxpayers might want to ask how much time do we want to have a sitting judge working on a lawsuit against the paper.”