Court won’t grant Minn. lawmaker immunity in defamation case

A Minnesota lawmaker isn’t entitled to legislative immunity in a defamation case against him, the state Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, sought legislative protection in a civil matter in which he questioned the ethics of a St. Paul city appointee. Lesch had raised concerns in a January 2018 letter to Mayor Melvin Carter about his appointment of Lyndsey Olson as city attorney.

Olson sued Lesch for defamation.

Lesch had asked the courts to declare his three-page letter -- written on Lesch’s legislative letterhead -- an official act subject to immunity. A district court judge and now the Court of Appeals declined to do so.

“A legislator’s actions must be within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity in order to warrant legislative immunity,” the appeals court decided in an opinion written by Judge Lucinda Jesson.

In their unanimous opinion, the three appeals judges said Lesch’s letter was of personal or political nature rather than legislative. 

“Had Lesch read his letter aloud on the floor of the legislature, his comments would be wholly protected by the speech or debate clause. But he did not,” Jesson wrote.

The case can move forward in civil court barring a successful appeal by Lesch to the state Supreme Court.

Lesch referred questions to his attorney, Marshall Tanick, who said an appeal is planned.

"We feel this is a very important public policy issue and we intend to appeal the matter to the Minnesota Supreme Court because it involves a significant issues involving public officials, transparency in government and the doctrine of separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches," Tanick said, calling the analysis drawing a distinction between words in writing versus said on the House floor "a fallacy."

Lisa Lamm Bachman, an attorney for Olson, didn't return a message from MPR News. But she told The Associated Press that while the constitution and state law grant broad legislative immunity to individual lawmakers, the protection is not absolute.

"There is no immunity for an individual legislator's conduct that is personally motivated and unrelated to any legitimate legislative purpose or activity," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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