Defeated candidate urges high court to curb harsh campaign accusations Miami lawyer blames loss, threats on 'libelous' story she was pro-Castro

November 13, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court seldom sits in judgment on the nation's political tactics, but the justices are being urged by a defeated congressional candidate to act now to put a limit on harsh campaign accusations of scandal.

In a move that could have an impact on the conduct of election campaigns next year, the court as early as today could vote to hear an appeal involving Miami lawyer Magda Montiel Davis.

A ruling, which would come by early next summer, could make state libel laws a stronger refuge for candidates assailed by opponents' accusations when those charges can't be backed up with facts.

The court has not fully defined the scope of First Amendment protection for political charges of misconduct. The most recent rulings that could affect that issue were handed down in 1989 and 1990. Since then, personal attacks as a campaign tactic have continued, raising anew the question of where the constitutional line might be drawn.

Ms. Davis' case attracted the attention of several Supreme Court justices last week. A minimum of four justices must vote to hear a case.

The Miami lawyer's appeal contends that an attack on her by a Spanish-language newspaper, labeling her a supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, not only helped bring about her defeat in 1992 but also led directly to bomb and death threats against her. One headline in the newspaper, La Verdad, called Ms. Davis a "Castrista" -- Castroite in English.

A Florida trial judge remarked during the case that, in Miami, a person identified publicly as a Castroite "might be dead in three minutes." The judge, however, threw out Ms. Davis' libel claim, saying that the charges against her were only an expression of "political judgment and opinion," protected by the free speech clause of the Constitution's First Amendment.

She ran in 1992 for a congressional seat in Florida's 18th congressional district, one of two Dade County districts with a Hispanic majority.

That district, about two-thirds Cuban-American, has been represented since 1989 by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- the first Cuban-American elected to Congress.

Ms. Davis, a Democrat, is Cuban-American, too.

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen won re-election by defeating Ms. Davis by a margin of 67 percent to 33 percent.

During that campaign, Ms. Davis and her attorney-husband, Ira J. Kurzban, were accused of having close ties to the Castro regime through Mr. Kurzban's legal practice.

Mr. Kurzban has said that all the allegations made by La Verdad against him and his wife are false.

Immediately after the first La Verdad story attacking Ms. Davis was published in September 1992, she "received her first bomb and life threats," her lawsuit contends.

Ms. Davis' lawsuit is aimed only at the newspaper, its publisher and the reporter who wrote the stories.

No claim is made against Ms. Ros-Lehtinen.

The Davis appeal to the Supreme Court argues that while the court has gone far to protect even "vehement and caustic" political rhetoric, it also has made clear that "the scales are not invariably tipped in favor of uninhibited speech."

The only time the court has upheld a libel verdict based on comments made during a political campaign was in 1989, when it upheld a $200,000 verdict against an Ohio newspaper for an article recounting complaints of misconduct against a candidate for a local judgeship.

A year later, in 1990, the court issued another significant ruling on libel, appearing to narrow the First Amendment protection for comments that amounted only to expressions of opinion rather than statements of fact.

The 1990 decision is directly at issue in Ms. Davis' new appeal. The court said in that ruling that the First Amendment does not protect everything that could be labeled an opinion. Any opinion based on a statement of fact that turns out to be false and harmful to someone's reputation could be challenged as libelous just as the false statement itself could, the court indicated.

Lawyers for the newspaper La Verdad have urged the Supreme Court to turn down Ms. Davis' appeal.

Those lawyers argued that the accusations against Ms. Davis amounted to mere political "name-calling."

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