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Judge won't dismiss defamation case against Kari Lake

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer against former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. 

Richer brought the case over public claims Lake made without evidence alleging he sabotaged the 2022 election, including that Richer injected 300,000 illegal ballots into the vote count and that he intentionally caused the ballot printer issues that affected voting centers on Election Day. 

“Everyone, of course, has the right to criticize public officials and even to use vile insults,” said Ben Berwick, Richer’s attorney. “But there has never been a right to knowingly or recklessly spread false information that harms specific individuals.”

In a ruling issued Wednesday, Judge Jay Adelman said the suit can move forward, because Lake’s attorneys failed to prove Richer brought the suit for an improper purpose. 

Lake’s attorneys asked the court to dismiss the case, saying she believed the allegations to be true. They also argued she should be protected by Arizona’s anti-SLAPP law, which is designed to protect citizens who criticize public officials.

Lake, who is now running for U.S. Senate, did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling submitted through her campaign. But she did post about the decision from her official account on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“This is about taking away our First Amendment rights and interfering in the US Senate race,” Lake wrote. “This case should have been tossed out of court.”

But Adelman found the law did not protect Lake from potentially facing legal repercussions for her statements alleging Richer interfered in the election.

“With this limitation in mind, the court is satisfied that the disputed statements — if indeed they are ‘provable’ as false and defamatory — would be undeserving of the protections associated with our First Amendment principles,” the judge wrote.

Adelman also found that in numerous public forums, Lake presented the allegations about Richer as “statements of fact” — which can be proven true or false in court — and not “mere rhetorical hyperbole.”

“In point of fact, Defendant Lake’s statements regarding improper 19-inch ballots and/or the existence of 300,000 fraudulent ballots may be discerned by a factfinder as either true or false when considered in the light of any available evidence,” Adelman wrote. “These statements constitute assertions of fact that are actionable under prevailing Arizona law.”

Richer’s attorney praised the ruling.

“That kind of defamation has never been Constitutionally protected, and the court’s ruling recognizes that,” Berwick said. “It reaffirms that if you injure someone by lying about them, you can be held accountable.”

Adleman also said that Richer's lawyers have enough allegations in his lawsuit against Lake, her campaign and the Save Arizona Fund she has used to raise cash, to provide a basis to show that she acted with "actual malice.''

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people who are considered public figures, like Richer, cannot sue for defamation unless they can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the statements were made with actual malice. In general, that means the person making the statement knew it to be false or that the statement was made with a reckless disregard for the truth.

Wednesday's ruling clears the way for a trial. And given that it was Lake who made the claims, she now has to prove they are true — something she has been unable to prove in any of her still-ongoing legal efforts to get a court to overturn her 2022 loss to Democrat Katie Hobbs by more than 17,000 votes.

Richer is not seeking an injunction to stop Lake from making statements in the future. Instead, he seeks a court order requiring her and her campaign to delete past false and defamatory statements about him from any websites and social media accounts they control. He is also asking for unspecified financial damages.

Richer’s legal team is now preparing for the discovery phase of the trial, during which it will attempt to gather evidence to prove its case.

Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.