A state appeals court dismissed Republican megadonor Kelcy Warren’s defamation lawsuit against Beto O’Rourke, ruling Friday that statements by the 2022 Democratic nominee for governor were protected by the First Amendment.
The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals said a district court judge in San Saba County mistakenly denied O’Rourke’s motion to dismiss in July 2022. Warren, a Dallas pipeline billionaire, had sued O’Rourke for defamation after the candidate repeatedly invoked Warren while criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott for the 2021 power-grid collapse.
“We hold that an examination of the statements and their context from the position of a reasonable person shows they are non-actionable opinions and fall within the bounds of protected speech,” a three-judge panel said in its ruling.
Friday’s ruling came seven months after oral arguments on the motion to dismiss and can be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
The legal journey kicked off more than a year ago, when O’Rourke opened his campaign with intense criticism over Abbott’s handling of the grid failure amid a severe winter storm. Warren’s pipeline company made a huge profit as demand for gas spiked, and O’Rourke seized on a $1 million donation Warren later made to Abbott, arguing it was effectively a bribe to go easy on Warren’s industry after the storm.
Warren sued O’Rourke for defamation in San Saba County, where O’Rourke then filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit and separately sought a change of venue. The San Saba judge denied both motions, and O’Rourke appealed to the 3rd Court of Appeals, where all six justices are currently Democrats. The appeals court rejected O’Rourke’s move to change venue but agreed to consider the motion to dismiss.
See here, here, and here for some background. I think the Third Court got it exactly right – Lord knows, far meaner things have been said about people in the course of Texas politics just since I’ve been paying attention – but you know how sensitive those billionaires can be. It would be nice if this were the end of it, but it isn’t, not yet.
Warren’s attorney, Dean Pamphilis, said he plans to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
“We believe that the trial court was correct in upholding Mr. Warren’s defamation claims and respectfully disagree with the Austin Court of Appeals decision,” he said.
Voters, the court ruled, “would understand that the gist of O’Rourke’s statements — even when using sharp language such as ‘corrupt’ and ‘like a bribe’ — as reiterating his political advocacy that he would be a better governor, couched in the oft-repeated argument that one’s political opponent is beholden to their campaign contributors.”
Chad Dunn, who represented O’Rourke in the case, called the ruling a victory for free speech.
“This was an effort to silence important political speech, and all Texans are benefited from it not being successful,” Dunn said.
Like I said, I think that’s right, and I hope that SCOTx sees it that way, too. We’ll find out soon enough.