A state representative who was sued for defamation is not entitled to immunity because comments he made about the St. Paul city attorney were personal or political and not part of any legislative activity, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
The decision allows Lyndsey Olson’s defamation case against Democratic state Rep. John Lesch to proceed.
Olson sued Lesch after he wrote a January 2018 letter to newly elected St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter in which he expressed concern about Olson’s fitness for office. Among other things, Lesch alleged that his experience with Olson in the Minnesota National Guard led him to believe she was “a prosecutor who would sacrifice justice in pursuit of a political win — even going so far as to commit misconduct to do so.”
Olson’s lawsuit said Lesch made statements that were false and defamatory.
Lesch asked that the case be dismissed, arguing he had legislative immunity under Minnesota law and under the speech or debate clause in the Minnesota Constitution. But the Appeals Court found that a legislator’s actions must be within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity to warrant immunity.
“Lesch’s letter was not essential to the legislative process,” Appeals Court Judge Lucinda Jesson wrote for the three-judge panel.
Lisa Lamm Bachman, an attorney for Olson, said she’s pleased with the decision, adding that 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.
Lesch referred questions to his attorney, Marshall Tanick, who told Minnesota Public Radio News that the case deals with “significant issues involving public officials, transparency in government and the doctrine of separation of powers between the judicial and legislative branches” and he intends to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. He later told The Associated Press that it’s the first time this issue has come before the courts, so guidance from the Supreme Court would be beneficial.
Jesson wrote that the historical purpose of legislative immunity is to protect lawmakers from intimidation by the executive branch and from a possibly hostile judiciary. The speech and debate clause protects activity on the floor of any house, though courts have determined that immunity under the clause extends to other legitimate legislative activity.
“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. He instead chose to raise his concerns in a letter to the mayor,” Jesson wrote.
Lesch, who was an assistant St. Paul city attorney for nearly 15 years and a former executive officer in the National Guard, argued that depriving lawmakers of immunity could create “a chilling effect,” deterring lawmakers from engaging in dialogue important to their jobs and resulting in less-effective governance. He also said lawmakers would fear lawsuits.
“But our conclusion that Lesch’s letter is not a legislative act does not change or dilute the immunity offered to legislators performing their official duties; it merely confirms in Minnesota established federal law: that immunity only applies to official legislative acts,” Jesson wrote.