Appellate Court Throws Out Murtha Defamation Lawsuit On Immunity Grounds

160px-john_murtha_official_photoNA-HadithaA federal appellate court has tossed out the lawsuit by Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich sued Rep. John Murtha for defamation after the congressman said that his Marine unit killed Iraqi women and children “in cold blood” in Haditha.

Wuterich’s, 26, lawsuit was filed after Murtha (a former Marine) cited stress and other factors in the alleged massacre. Ultimately, the case did not turn on the merits. Truth is a defense to defamation and the facts of the massacre have been hotly debated.

Members of Congress generally are protected under the “speech or debate” clause in Article I, Section 6, of the Constitution. However, the privilege protects legislative proceedings and generally does not apply to news releases, speeches and other public comments. This was the holding in Hutchinson v. Proxmire, when Sen. Proxmire was found to be acting outside of the clause in making media comments regarding his golden fleece award.

The D.C. Circuit ruling is based on the 1988 Westfall Act, which gives federal employees immunity from lawsuits arising out of acts they undertake in the course of their official duties. The court reversed the decision of U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer who had refused to dismiss the suit last September.

Murtha still faces a lawsuit by Lance Corporal Justin Sharratt who has charged him with defamation and the denial of both due process and the right to a fair trial.

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8 thoughts on “Appellate Court Throws Out Murtha Defamation Lawsuit On Immunity Grounds

  1. I can see the smoke on the wall as clearly as mud. Congress shall be protected so long as they are acting in the scope of the job. Well I am not too smart I am just a lowly attorney. Only what I say in the Courtroom is protected, speech under the defamation laws: to wit Libel and Slander. Thank You G-D.

    I do not think (thats Apparent) that the Immunity should extend outside of the Capitol or is that now Capital. Only while they are debating in the course of dealing. Get the Usage of trade out of thar.

    Hey does anyone have a place for your displaced presidents?

  2. Vince:

    Looks to me like it turned on the certification by the AG that Murtha was acting within the scope of his employment as a member of the House when he uttered the allegedly defamatory remarks. My experience is that such a certification is rarely challenged successfully, and I doubt SCOTUS will review the case. As a rule, I dislike most immunity defenses, but I have to admit here I’d like to see both sides lose.

  3. A question to the lawyers–mespo, do you mean that AG Holder certified Murtha was acting within the scope of his employment…If so, wouldn’t this be the same argument the Obama DOJ is putting forward on state secrets? If this is the case, I hope the supreme court will review and strike it down immediately.

  4. I have read the opinion and believe the case was correctly decided under existing law. Technically speaking, what the court concluded was that the complaint failed to state sufficient facts to get around the scope of employment issue. I’m surprised that plaintiff’s counsel didn’t seek leave to amend in the district court. But the lawsuit was a bad idea to begin with and I would also support the decision on basic public policy grounds. I don’t think the whole certification process makes any sense and it is essentially self-serving.

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