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Court won't block RNC libel case

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court of the United States Monday refused to intervene in a libel case against the Republican National Committee.

The suit was filed by an unsuccessful West Virginia Democratic candidate.

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The RNC unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court for review of a West Virginia Supreme Court ruling that reverses a dismissal of the case.

At issue in the case is what constitutes malice when criticizing a public figure.

Charlotte Pritt, a schoolteacher and former member of the state Legislature, was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1996. She lost the race to Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood.

Shortly before the election, a group called the West Virginia State Victory Committee broadcast television and radio ads purporting to criticize Pritt's record. The ads were paid for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which created the state group.

"Behind Charlotte Pritt's campaign smile is liberal voting record she can't hide from," the TV ad said. "In the state Senate, Charlotte Pritt proposed teaching first graders about condoms. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Senator Pritt also voted to permit the sale of pornographic videos to children. She even voted to allow convicted drug abusers to work in our public schools."

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The radio ad echoed the same charges, adding that she "voted to allow the burning of the American flag. ... She even opposed requiring students to begin their day with the Pledge of Allegiance."

In its petition to the high court, the RNC linked the claims to votes Pritt cast since 1989.

After RNC lawyers cited the Supreme Court's decision in 1964's New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, a state judge dismissed Pritt's suit, saying it contained no evidence of actual malice or false statements published with a "reckless disregard" of the truth.

The landmark 1964 decision sets a high bar for proving libel against a public figure.

But the West Virginia Supreme Court reversed the judge's dismissal, ruling that there was an "ongoing factual dispute" which precluded the judge from ending the trial.

In asking for review of the state high court, the RNC told the U.S. Supreme Court that the ads were factual. In opposing review, Pritt's lawyers told the U.S. Supreme Court that the case was not ripe for review because there had been no final judgment.

Pritt's lawyers noted that her Republican opponent disavowed the ads and asked that they be pulled from the air.

The Supreme Court refused to act in the case in a one-line order issued Monday.

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(Nos. 01-1328 and 01-1331, RNC and NRSC vs. Pritt)

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