SAN JUAN, RGV – Mission environmental activist Ester Salinas and the South Texas Civil Rights Project are celebrating victory following a favorable decision by the Texas Supreme Court in a famous defamation of character case.
Salinas v. Salinas originated when Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas brought a lawsuit against Ester Salinas in 2005, claiming she defamed him at two rowdy town hall meetings in Mission. The two are not related.
Mayor Salinas also sued Ester Salinas for telling Telemundo that based on a conversation she had with then-La Joya Mayor Billy Leo, her life was in danger.
Mayor Salinas won his defamation case in the 206th District Court and also partially won when Ester Salinas and STCRP appealed in 2009 to the 13th Court of Appeals. However, he has now lost in the Texas Supreme Court.
“This is a great victory for Ester Salinas, for the South Texas Civil Rights Project, and for supporters of free speech everywhere,” said STCRP Regional Director Corinna Spencer-Scheurich.
Spencer-Scheurich said the case should never have gone to court.
“The Supreme Court has clearly got it right. The law is really strong in protecting people under defamation cases that are brought to silence people,” Spencer-Scheurich said. “This case was being used as a weapon against Ester’s free speech and the Supreme Court cut right through that. It was a weapon used against Ester to control negative commentary.”
Spencer-Scheurich said the “victory” was all the sweeter because the Supreme Court, which is made up of nine Republican justices, did not even hear oral arguments. “The justices read our brief and together as a group said we were right. There was no additional briefing. It was a very simple case. They were like, ‘no, sorry, you are wrong, we’re sending this back for you to look at again.’ Now, we hope the 13th Court takes a fresh look at it.”
Mayor Salinas said that while the Supreme Court has ruled against him, he will not give up the fight.
“Ester Salinas has got a judgment but we will go back to the appellate court and we will go back to the Supreme Court. I am not going to let her off the hook. People like that need to be taught a lesson. She owes us $40,000. That was the judgment. We had the district judge with us and the appellate court. I do not know why the Supreme Court did not rule in our favor,” Mayor Salinas said.
“People need to be careful what they say and they need to respect elected officials. You don’t just say things to hurt people. Billy Leo and her (Ester Salinas) are the same way. They need to understand. They need to be careful. No, I am not going to let her off the hook.”
Mayor Salinas said he plans to go back to the appellate court and the Texas Supreme Court if necessary. “I have a good lawyer and I will spend whatever I have to, to teach her a lesson. I think I already I have.”
Mayor Salinas and former Mission Mayor Pat Townsend first filed lawsuits in 2005, claiming Ester Salinas slandered them at two rowdy town hall meetings. They zeroed in on an infamous meeting where Ester Salinas said judgment would be made on the “lying, stealing and killing.” She was referring to 500 stillborn Mission babies. At the same meeting Ester Salinas said the days of “slavery and political corruption are over.”
The lawsuits were first heard in the 206th state District Court with Judge Rose Guerra Reyna presiding. The case was notable because Guerra Reyna refused to let the media report that Ester Salinas was being represented by STRCP. Attorneys for Mayor Salinas and Townsend successfully argued that their clients had suffered enormous emotional distress due to Ester Salinas’s comments at the town hall meetings.
Ester Salinas had clashed politically with Mayor Salinas and Townsend many times over the years, arguing that as city leaders the two had failed to come to the rescue of hundreds of south Mission residents living near the highly toxic former Hayes-Sammons pesticide factory. Many residents living near the Superfund site have suffered serious illnesses and some have died.
A jury found Ester Salinas guilty of defamation and ordered her to pay $30,000 in damages to Mayor Salinas and $10,000 in damages to Townsend. Attorneys for STCRP appealed to the 13th Court, arguing that Guerra Reyna made several key mistakes in the two week trial.
The 13th Court of Appeals did not rule on some sections of the case but did uphold part of the case brought by Mayor Salinas. The part upheld involved the time Ester Salinas went on Telemundo and said her life was in danger. She later said she had been told her life was in danger for opposing Mayor Salinas. The person who told her of this, she said, was Mayor Leo. Deposed by attorneys for Mayor Salinas and Townsend, Leo said he could not remember ever making such a remark.
Spencer-Scheurich gave the Guardian a potted history of the case.
“At trial Ester was found liable to Mr. Townsend and Mr. Salinas. Then at the Court of Appeals, the court found Mr. Townsend was not defamed by Ester Salinas but upheld the judgment against Mr. Salinas. We appealed. They specifically relied on one statement; a statement made on Telemundo. The 13th Court found that statement was defamatory and could be used to uphold the judgment. But the Supreme Court has said no, that statement cannot be used to uphold the judgment. The Court specifically found that Mr. Salinas was not injured at all by the statement, ‘They are going to kill you.’ Mr. Salinas was not injured by that statement. There is no proof of injury. So, they are remanding to the Court of Appeals.”
Spencer-Scheurich reiterated that the case clearly revolves around the issue of protected speech. “The comments made in front of city council (to Townsend and Salinas) were clearly made by someone exercising her free speech to comment about the work of her elected public officials and the issues going on in her community. We get to use heated rhetoric. We get to complain about our public officials. The law expects them to have thick skin. They can respond in the media but they cannot respond by filing lawsuits. I think the law is clearly on our side here and we hope to be vindicated in the Court of Appeals,” Spencer-Scheurich said.
Spencer-Scheurich acknowledged STCRP put a lot of time and effort into the case. She said the group was “lucky” to have co-counsel from Peter Kennedy, an attorney with the Austin-based law firm of Graves, Daugherty, Hearon and Moody.
“Peter knew this was an important issue. Free speech is one of our most sacred rights as a people, as a country. It did take a lot of work but we knew this was a case worth fighting for. There is still work to be done but we are on our way. It is definitely a victory,” Spencer-Scheurich said.
Asked what the takeaway from the case was, Spencer-Scheurich said: “People should not feel scared to speak out. If we allow elected officials to file lawsuits every time they do not like something somebody said then we would lose an important right. The law is on the side of people who want to speak out on public issues and public officials. People should not feel scared. You have power in your vote and you have power in your voice.”