Sidney pastor appeals to Montana Supreme Court to take control of libel case

Attorney: Great Falls judge got law wrong in determining lobbyist’s status

By: - February 4, 2022 9:43 am

Cascade County Courthouse in Great Falls Montana in 2020 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The attorney for a Sidney pastor and online publisher has appealed to the Montana Supreme Court to take the libel case involving a transgender Native lobbyist because he said the district court judge got a recent ruling wrong and it needs to be corrected before the trial can proceed.

Matthew Monforton, the attorney for Pastor Jordan “JD” Hall, who is the publisher of the Montana Daily Gazette, argued in a motion that Cascade County District Court Judge Elizabeth Best erred when she ruled that Adrian Jawort, a lobbyist during the 2021 session, was not a “limited public figure,” a legal concept important to the case that determines what standard the court must apply in determining the outcome of the case.

The appeal centers on whether statements published by Hall in the Montana Daily Gazette were related to Jawort’s work as a lobbyist, and if she was acting as a public figure who was involved in a controversy of public interest. The ruling is significant because it determines what Jawort and her legal team must prove in order to be successful in the libel case, which accuses Hall of publishing untrue statements that harmed Jawort’s reputation.

Best’s ruling determined that Jawort was not a “limited public figure,” and that an incident involving shouting at a state senator and the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms had no connection to Jawort’s work as a lobbyist, and therefore she would only need to prove Hall and the Daily Gazette were negligent in their reporting. However, Monforton argues in his appeal that the incident, which Jawort claims never happened and is a possibly a case of mistaken identity, was part of a heated debate about transgender rights and because of Jawort’s involvement in lobbying on the issue, makes her a limited public figure. Because Monforton said Best got that ruling incorrect, Jawort should be forced to prove Hall and the Daily Gazette acted with malice, meaning they must prove Hall intentionally tried to harm Jawort’s reputation.

The basis for the case stems from an article Hall originally published under a generic name, “publisher” which was headlined, “Who’s the Gothic Transvestite Haunting the Halls of the Montana Capitol?” Hall claims that two confidential and unnamed sources told him they witnessed an incident in which Jawort became so aggressive that a Senator was ushered by another lobbyist to the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms for protection. However, Jawort has always denied the incident ever happened, and demanded a correction, which Hall has refused.

The paragraph in the Montana Daily Gazette stated, “Reportedly, the angry transvestite and several of his associates had cornered Senator Butch Gillespie in an angry tirade. Also reportedly, Montana Family Foundation President Jeff Laszloffy escorted Sen. Gillespie to the Sergeant of Arms for his protection.”

Best ruled in a partial summary judgment that there may have been a confrontation between Jawort and lawmakers on the issue of “appropriation of indigenous lands in Montana” but that was not related to the topic of transgender rights being debated at the time, and happened in a different context. She also ruled that it was unclear whether Jawort “lobbied on this issue at all,” meaning the incident was likely not tied to her lobbying efforts and therefore she was not acting as a limited public figure.

“Rather, Knox tied the false statement to an offensive and ignorant epithet used by transphobic people, obviously aimed at demeaning Jawort,” Best said.

Part of the case involves Montana’s reporter’s shield law, which prohibits the court from compelling journalists to share information about sources. Monforton told the Daily Montanan that Hall is unlikely to call those witnesses.

Best ruled that the incident in question was unrelated to the article or Jawort’s work and therefore not entitled to protection under the “limited public figure” doctrine, meaning that if the case proceeds, the lobbyist’s attorneys would only have to prove that Hall and the publication were negligent in fact-checking. Monforton said in the appeal to the Supreme Court, that standard is the incorrect and is asking the high court to find that Jawort was a limited public figure and must prove Hall acted with intent and malice.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Jawort have filed a motion with the trial court in Cascade County to impose sanctions against Hall for menacing statements made about Jawort after the lawsuit was filed and also one of Jawort’s lawyers, Raph Graybill. The attorneys also reference comments Hall made about the court case and Best. Pending the decision of the state Supreme Court, a hearing on those motions is scheduled for Feb. 16.

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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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