WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court Monday let stand an order that the Christic Institute pay $1 million in attorneys' fees for pursuing a frivolous lawsuit against those it claimed were responsible for the 1984 assassination attempt of a Nicaraguan rebel leader.
The court, without comment, let stand the ruling upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the non-profit Christic Institute, its chief counsel, and two journalists.
The assassination attempt involved a bomb blast at a news conference by Eden Pastora in La Penca, Nicaragua, killing nine people.
A federal district court in Florida in 1989 ruled, and the 11th Circuit agreed, that two years of court action by the liberal public interest law group was without merit and that the Christic Institute, its chief counsel, Daniel Sheehan, and journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, were liable for more than $1 million.
The Christic Institute claims the district court improperly awarded the attorneys' fees on a number of grounds, but chiefly by failing to denote to what degree Sheehan, the Christic Institute or the two journalists were variously liable.
Federal rules governing conduct during civil court cases allow judges to order a suing party found to have knowingly misrepresented or falsified evidence to pay costs incurred in defending against the claims.
But the Christic Institute claims the rules apply only to the particular attorney arguing a case and do not allow a court to sanction the law firm of an attorney who violates the rules.
They also contend that the allegations in the case were made in good faith and were strong enough to protect against such sanctions.
The Christic Institute said the $1 million is nearly four times the non-profit group's net assets. The institute posted a $1.2 million bond awaiting the outcome of the case.
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, in a friend-of-the-court brief, said the rationale used by the district court 'seriously chills the practice of public interest law and the willingness of potential public interest clients to participate in litigation.'
The amount of the award, 'which threatens to bankrupt the appelants is tantamount to a criminal penalty and arguably implicates the due process requirements attendant to criminal contempt proceedings, including a jury trial,' wrote attorneys for the Christic Institute.
Even if Sheehan was lying, the group argued, it should not be held liable unless a court found that the institute knew Sheehan's actions were wrongful.
A $1 million award also should require findings of specific wrongdoing beyond the District Court's general ruling that the Christic Institute 'must have known prior to suing that they had no competent evidence to substantiate the theories alleged,' the institute argued.
The district court said that in 'two years of protracted and extensive discovery of scores of witnesses across the United States, Costa Rica, and elsewhere, the plaintiffs were unable to produce a single witness who could state that the defendants exploded the bomb or were responsible for the assassination attempt.'
The Christic Institute's lawsuit alleged a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act by 30 individuals. It charged involvement not only in the Pastora assassination attempt but also in illegal anti-communist conspiracies dating back to the early 1960s.
Those named in the suit -- including Iran-Contra figures Richard Secord, Albert Hakim, Thomas Clines, John Singlaub, Theodore Shackley and former Contra leader Adolfo Calero -- said the lawsuit was a publicity stunt and an effort by the Christic Institute to use the 'subpoena power of the federal courts to conduct their own Iran-Contra investigation.'
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, noting that the lawsuit stemmed from investigative journalism that had survived a libel suit in Costa Rica, called it 'incredible' for the district court to enter sanctions based on the ground that the case never should have been filed.
'Very few plaintiffs or their lawyers have ever done (or could ever do) more to investigate and demonstrate the validity of their allegations prior to filing suit,' the group stated.
As for basing sanctions on the grounds that the suit was filed in part on hearsay evidence and that some witnesses changed their stories under oath, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice stated: 'These things happen in litigation throughout the federal courts every day. They do not support a finding that plaintiffs or their counsel did anything wrong, much less that sanctions are appropriate.'NEWLN: ------
91-617 Christic Institute vs. John Hull, et al.
91-618 Daniel P. Sheehan vs. John Hull, et al.NEWLN: 91-619 Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey vs. John Hull, et al.