Aron's failed lawsuit 1994 Senate primary: Unsuccessful candidate sought limits on what opponents can say.

March 15, 1996

RUTHANN ARON failed to persuade Maryland Republicans she was their best candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1994. Now, she has also failed to persuade a court that the winner of that primary, former Sen. Bill Brock, defamed her in the closing days of the campaign.

The verdict is not just a victory for Mr. Brock, but also an endorsement of the need for vigorous, robust public debate, even if that debate occasionally skirts the line of propriety. The decision is consistent with a long line of legal precedents affirming the fact that limiting public debate can do more harm than good.

The verdict is also a commentary on candidates who dish out negative attacks on their opponents, then cry foul if their opponents respond in kind. Those who remember the 1994 Republican Senate primary will also remember that Ms. Aron, a Montgomery County developer who had never held elective office, mounted vigorous attacks on Mr. Brock.

Among other things, she accused him of refusing to support term limits, although an official of a national organization that had solicited support for the issue claimed that the Aron campaign knew Mr. Brock had signed the same pledge she did. Was she deliberately distorting the truth? If so, then she committed the same kind of offense for which she sued Mr. Brock.

There's an old saying that bad cases produce bad law, and had this lawsuit been successful it would probably have set a precedent producing more confusion than clarification of appropriate campaign behavior. Ms. Aron entered the Senate race eager to attack Mr. Brock. The jury found it significant that Mr. Brock brought up her previous legal battles only after much provocation from Ms. Aron, including her tactic of showing up at his press conference to attack him. In fact, civil trial judgments against Ms. Aron had been set aside and she had agreed to pay settlements of some $300,000.

The Aron verdict is not an endorsement of dirty campaign tactics. What it shows is that juries know that the kind of score Ruthann Aron wanted to settle is best decided on Election Day, not months later in a courtroom.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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