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Jan. 15, 2024Omaha, Neb. |  By: AP

Defamation case against Nebraska Republican Party should be heard by a jury, state’s high court says


OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday that a jury should decide whether former Republican state legislative candidate Janet Palmtag was defamed by her own political party in a 2020 race that highlighted a growing schism within the state GOP.

The high court’s decision reversed a lower court ruling in which a judge sided with the Nebraska Republican Party by tossing out the lawsuit before a jury could hear it.

The lawsuit centers on campaign mailers sent out by the party in October 2020 that falsely claimed Palmtag — a lifelong Nebraska Republican — had been charged with mishandling business trust accounts and had lost her real estate license. The mailers, sent to about 3,200 households of registered voters, included statements that Palmtag “broke the law and lost her real estate license,” and that her license had been “revoked.” The mailers also described Palmtag as “too irresponsible to keep her license.”

The mailers grossly mischaracterized a 2018 disciplinary case out of Iowa that found Palmtag’s real estate brokerage firm responsible for improperly transferring funds from an Iowa account to a Nebraska one. It was not Palmtag but another real estate agent who worked for the firm that had made the improper transaction. The company paid a $500 fine for the oversight.

Two years later, Palmtag canceled her Iowa real estate license, citing a lack of business for her firm there. The decision was not related to the disciplinary case, she said.

Palmtag demanded corrections to the mailers, but the state party refused. Following her loss in the November 2020 election, she sued the state GOP for defamation.

In 2022, a judge threw out the lawsuit, saying that while the state party’s mailers were defamatory, Palmtag would not be able to prove to a jury that the party acted with actual malice.

The state’s high court disagreed in its reversal, noting that Palmtag had shown that the GOP failed to investigate whether Palmtag was the subject of the Iowa real estate disciplinary case or whether that had been the catalyst for her inactivating her Iowa real estate license. Palmtag also presented as evidence text messages between then-state GOP Executive Director Ryan Hamilton and a GOP vendor, who responded upon being told of the party’s accusations against Palmtag, “OK that’s not real.”

“A jury could find the party chose not to investigate further in a purposeful avoidance of the truth,” Justice John Freudenberg wrote for the court.

Palmtag is “eager for a jury to hear the case,” her attorney, David Domina of Omaha said Friday.

The party’s mailers and other campaign efforts were intended to help state Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, Palmtag’s rival in the officially nonpartisan race.

Slama was appointed in 2019 to the seat by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts to fill a vacancy. When she ran for the seat in 2020, Ricketts backed her, but his predecessor, fellow Republican Dave Heineman, endorsed Palmtag. That exposed a split in the party, with some lined up to support Palmtag and Heineman — the longest-serving governor in Nebraska — while others backed Slama and Ricketts, who now represents Nebraska in the U.S. Senate.

Some Republicans expressed outrage over the mailers, while Ricketts and others supported the campaign attacks. But the party’s actions in the legislative race marked a new level in intraparty strife. Within days of sending the mailers, the state GOP and a political consulting firm it had hired were found liable for making illegal robocalls to help Slama in the race.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission found that the automated calls were made without proper disclosure and that neither the GOP nor the consulting firm had registered with the commission or filed a script of the call with the commission, as required by law.

Kamron Hasan, an Omaha attorney representing the Nebraska GOP, said the party is disappointed by Friday’s ruling.

“We’re still looking at next steps at this point,” he said.