Lobbyist, lawyers file for sanctions in suit involving Sidney pastor

Court documents allege Hall made threatening statements about lawyers, judge and transgender lobbyist

By: - January 27, 2022 9:13 pm

A screenshot capture of a forum Pastor JD Hall used to promote an event in Great Falls one day after Judge Elizabeth Best made a ruling in a libel case involving Hall.

In a motion filed Wednesday in Cascade County, a group of attorneys are asking a judge to sanction a Baptist minister and online publisher who they say is using unorthodox tactics as a reckless attempt at bullying a transgender lobbyist into dropping a libel lawsuit.

In a court filing that includes more than 100 pages of exhibits, attorney Constance Van Kley outlines more than two dozen cases where Pastor Jordan “J.D.” Hall of Fellowship Baptist Church in Sidney makes threatening or questionable statements in sermons, in the Montana Daily Gazette and on social media.

For example, Hall has said that he’ll treat one of his courtroom opponent’s lawyers, Raph Graybill, like a coyote, killing him in the legal process and then leaving his carcass on the fence as a warning.

He’s posted a photo of what appears to be a wall in his home with other hunting mounts, and a placard for a mount called, “Raph Graybill.”

A picture of the Tweet where Jordan Hall of the Gideon Knox Group makes a spot for Attorney Raph Graybill among the trophies on his wall. (Twitter)

Hall has said he has rocks at the ready for Graybill, comparing himself to David in the Biblical story of Goliath, “and as before, God will beat him again. Proverbially, his end will be that of Goliath, or Sodom, or the dead of God’s great flood when the winepress of his fury overflows into the Earth.”

And when the case involving a disputed confrontation at last year’s Legislature was recently transferred to Great Falls judge Elizabeth Best, Hall responded with a flurry of criticism and hosted a forum this week about removing judges from office, with Best as the only person singled out by name.

Hall has recently posted on social media a photo of a book, “When Violence is the Answer,” a title he called, “very insightful.”

In a court brief, attorneys for Adrian Jawort, a transgender lobbyist suing Hall and the Montana Daily Gazette for libel, ask Best to impose sanctions against the pastor from Sidney because of his postings, preaching and references to violence, which he routinely describes as “metaphor.” Hall is the publisher of the Montana Daily Gazette.

Best also made several other key rulings in the case, which appear to have also made her a target of Hall’s ire.

“Well, it’s disturbing legally to see a judge break the law worse than the criminals that I meet with on Monday night at the Bible study at the jail,” Hall said.

In court documents filed this week, Best ruled that Jawort was a “limited public figure,” and not a “libel-proof defendant” as Hall had claimed. The ruling is important insofar as it will dictate which legal standard Hall and the publication, the Montana Daily Gazette, will be held to if the case goes to trial. The Montana Daily Gazette is run by Hall and the Gideon Knox Group, which appears to be controlled by Hall. The Gideon Knox group also operates a radio station and public relations group.

In her ruling, Best said that Jawort, a lobbyist for Indigenous Vote at the Montana Legislature, is a limited public figure, meaning that her legal team will only have to establish the Montana Daily Gazette was negligent in publishing the dispute claim that she was so aggressive with a state senator that another lobbyist had to enlist the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms for protection, an incident that Jawort maintains never happened.

However, Hall and his attorney, Matthew Monforton, argued that Jawort should be judged by a different legal standard, “the libel proof defendant,” a legal theory which has not been argued in Montana previously and one that Best dismissed. That theory is applied to public figures of notoriety whose reputations have been so badly damaged that any story published about them, regardless of spurious claims, couldn’t possibly do any more reputational damage than has already been done. Monforton, a former Republican lawmaker who left the party after the Jan. 6 riots, said that Jawort’s social media posts made it impossible for Hall’s article, “Who’s the Gothic Transvestite Haunting the Halls of the Montana Capitol,” to damage her reputation.

But Best ruled that Hall’s reporting on the incident and his refusal to check its accuracy were not related to Jawort’s public work as a lobbyist.

“Rather, Knox tied the false statement to an offensive and ignorant epithet used by transphobic people, obviously aimed at demeaning Jawort. The statement, in context, was not germane to Jawort’s engagement in the public controversy regarding transgender rights. Rather, it was reckless and gratuitous,” Best ruled. “The abject failure by Knox to investigate or retract the false statement, coupled with the subsequent statements by Knox, together with the testimony set forth in the filed affidavits, Jawort can meet the higher standard of showing Knox’s actual malice.”

On Tuesday, the day after Best made her ruling against the pastor, Hall took to the road and hosted a forum in Great Falls — a 376 mile one-way trip — which is the judge’s hometown.

At the gathering, “Judicial Reform, Judge Best and Removing Bad Judges from the State of Montana,” Hall said he plans on defying her order, which requires masking in the courtroom.

“My God is bigger than Elizabeth Best. I’m not afraid of that woman. I am not afraid of what she will try to do to the jury pool. I’m not afraid with being threatened with arrest for not wearing a mask in her courtroom,” Hall said. “Here’s the thing: Even if I were to somehow lose on the subject of calling a man a man and transphobic hate speech, even I were somehow to lose, I’m going to use that to triple and quadruple and quintuple my platform because this is going national.”

In addition to resisting masking mandates, Hall promised action if Best forces him to use feminine pronouns when referring to Jawort.

“A woman is a woman because God made her a woman at the chromosomal level. And if a judge calls – I think my attorney would admonish me for saying too much – but when the judge refers to him as her, it’s going to get real, real fast,” Hall said.

Adding to the complexity, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter appeared at the forum in uniform, in front of a lectern decked out with a Randy Pinocci campaign sign. Slaughter has previously been criticized for appearing with and giving a sheriff’s office token coin of support to Hall. Pinocci is currently a Public Service Commissioner, former state Republican lawmaker and appeared recently at a March for Life Rally at the Capitol with Hall.

Slaughter urged residents to demand changes at the Legislature and said that requiring mask wearing would likely disrupt the jury pool.

“They already know I am going to blow them up all over media,” Slaughter said. “They know citizens in this country are on my side, not their side. They can’t afford to have more bad publicity…Refusing to wear a mask should not stop you from serving jury duty.”

Sanctions

Attorney Van Kley has asked Best to take sanctions against Hall for his words on social media, in sermons and during the rallies.

In one post, Hall said, “Who else, besides Planned Parenthood’s attorney, is a better honor to oppose me, or whose (metaphoric) head makes a better mantle piece,” referring to Graybill’s work representing Planned Parenthood in a challenge to laws passed by the 2021 Legislature restricting abortion.

After that post, Hall comments, “Sharpen the guillotine.”

In another post, Hall states, “Want me to shut up about the LGBTQ? No,” which features him outside a RV called “the Gideon Knox Mobile Command Center,” and toting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Hall also admitted that his attorney, Monforton, had repeatedly advised him to curb his behavior, but the pastor appeared to double down, saying on radio, “My attorney asked me to lay off Raph Graybill. I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t stop. It’s compulsory. Because it is the holy spirt in our heart compelling us, pushing us, prodding us forward, with our hand on the plow, and dare we not take it off.”

Attorneys for Jawort noted that Hall’s rhetoric has been taking on a more violent, pointed bent, targeting judges as he was simultaneously recommending “When Violence is the Answer.”

“This is an excellent late night reading (sic),” Hall said. “Great book, especially for a pastor who despises pacifism.”

That combative, fighting language can be found in many of the posts the attorneys reference in the court file.

“In Genesis 9, the Sodomites came to Lot’s door in a Gay Pride March and banged on his door to rape his celestial guests. He offered them instead his daughters. To hell with that. I have three daughters, two sons and the LGBTQ can have them over my dead body. And if my body lay dead, I assure you, there will be many more on the floor first,” said a post on the Montana Daily Gazette.

“Hall’s behavior is clearly engineered to deter (Jawort) and her attorneys from vindicating her right to bring a civil action for defamation,” Jawort’s lawyers said. “He has done so for his own pecuniary benefit and to grow his profile. The conduct is not isolate, and it is plainly willful, premeditated, deliberate and directed toward the proceedings.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.

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