A libel trial against syndicated columnist Jack Anderson ended Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Diego with the judge saying he is sure that former San Diego Rep. Lionel Van Deerlin never used drugs.
Judge Leland C. Neilsen made his comments at the end of the three-day trial, but withheld judgment on whether Anderson libeled Van Deerlin in a 1983 newspaper column that said the former congressman was a suspected customer of a Capitol Hill drug ring.
While Van Deerlin and his lawyer said the judge’s remarks indicated at least a partial victory, Anderson’s attorney, David Branson, said they have “no bearing” on the outcome of the case.
Neilsen said he will decide the libel question in two months, after Branson and Van Deerlin’s lawyer, Michael Aguirre, have submitted arguments.
“If the question before the court was whether or not former Congressman Van Deerlin in any way whatsoever engaged in any illegal conduct with relation to drugs,” Neilsen said, “I would find such allegations wholly false.
“And it is unfortunate, to the extent that his reputation was blemished in any way by the implications of the article.”
The non-jury trial ended a week earlier than expected because several witnesses, including a Washington police detective and two of Anderson’s reporters, did not testify. Aguirre had planned to call all three, but they could not be ordered to appear because the San Diego federal court has no jurisdiction over people in Washington.
Instead, much of the trial involved Aguirre reading depositions from the witnesses.
The case revolved around Anderson’s “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column of April 27, 1983, which appeared in more than 700 publications across the country. The column said members of Congress “stand accused of violating the narcotics laws they have prescribed for the rest of us.” It went on to name Van Deerlin, a Democrat who represented San Diego’s 41st Congressional District for 18 years before he was defeated by Duncan Hunter in 1980.
Anderson knowingly, maliciously and falsely said that Van Deerlin used cocaine and was a customer of a Capitol Hill cocaine ring, according to Van Deerlin’s 1983 libel suit.
Van Deerlin’s lawyers tried to show that Anderson and members of his reporting staff planted the allegations with a police detective, who they then used to legitimize the publication of the story.
“That’s why they call the column the ‘Merry-Go-Round,’ ” Aguirre said, “because they put the information on and then it comes right back to them and they write about it.”
Aguirre charged that Anderson did not adequately verify the names in Detective Michael Hubbard’s memo, on which the story was based. “A claim of a thorough investigation, when there has been none, shows fabrication and, thereby, malice,” Aguirre said in a legal brief. Hubbard said in a deposition that the memo was “raw and unsubstantiated.”
Aguirre also objected to Anderson’s statement in the article that police had “incriminating evidence of involvement” against Van Deerlin and others, when the police memo said only that “intelligence” had been gathered about the congressmen.
Anderson testified that the terms were “interchangeable” to him. And his lawyer argued that the story was merely an accurate report of the memo, a government document, and thus protected from libel prosecution.
Branson also produced a Drug Enforcement Administration report that he said confirmed that Van Deerlin was suspected of using cocaine. The report, although most of it was crossed out to protect informants, does mention Van Deerlin.
Anderson was not in court Tuesday for the final day of the trial. He had been given permission by Neilsen to leave San Diego. The celebrated columnist reportedly flew to Florida on Saturday to witness Monday’s launch of the space shuttle Challenger.
Van Deerlin called the judge’s remarks about his innocence “gratifying,” and his wife Mary Jo said she was “elated.”
Van Deerlin said he does not know if Neilsen’s comments indicate the judge is leaning toward finding Anderson’s article libelous. “I feel like Sharon,” Van Deerlin said, referring to former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon was able to disprove portions of a Time magazine report that he ordered attacks on a Beirut refugee camp, but he lost his libel case because he could not prove that the magazine’s staff members were “subjectively aware” of the falsity of the article, Aguirre said.
Asked whether he wanted more than the judge’s words of vindication, Van Deerlin said, “I would like the cash equivalent, without which the spiritual values are somewhat lacking.”
Neilsen can award damages to Van Deerlin if he finds the article libelous.
Aguirre said the remarks indicated Neilsen believes the article was false. “Now the only question is whether Anderson had the requisite malice to prove libel,” Aguirre said. “We are halfway there.”
But Branson said the judge’s remarks have no bearing on the case. “I agree with what the judge said,” Branson said. “We did not try to prove, nor did we prove, that Van Deerlin used cocaine. He’s a wonderful man, an honorable man, and I agree with the judge entirely.”
Anderson’s story said only that Van Deerlin had been accused of using drugs, not that he was a drug user, Branson said. Branson said he expects Neilsen to uphold the truth of the story.
Van Deerlin, 71, lives on a ranch in Vista and writes a twice-weekly column for the San Diego Tribune.