PHOENIX (AP) — An Arizona judge has ordered three Republicans, including secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, to pay $75,000 in attorney fees for filing a defamation suit against a former Democratic lawmaker “primarily for purposes of harassment.”
The Republicans filed the lawsuit last year against former Democratic state Rep. Charlene Fernandez after she called for an investigation of their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. The judge dismissed the lawsuit in April, saying Fernandez's request was protected by the First Amendment’s rights to free speech and to petition the government.
The lawsuit was “groundless and not made in good faith,” Yuma County Judge Pro Tem Levi Gunderson ruled on Monday, adding that it appeared to have been "written for an audience other than the assigned trial court judge."
Gunderson said legal filings by the Republicans made irrelevant references to open borders and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The lawsuit “was brought for an improper purpose, having been filed against a political opponent primarily for purposes of harassment,” he added.
Fernandez and 41 other Democratic lawmakers signed a letter on Jan. 12, 2021, urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Finchem, Gosar, then-state Rep. Anthony Kern and U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, all Republicans from Arizona. Finchem and Kern were outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, while Gosar and Biggs are under scrutiny for their roles in supporting protests leading up to the counting of electoral votes that day. All have denied wrongdoing.
Finchem and Kern, who is running for the state Senate this year, sued Fernandez and were later joined in the suit by Gosar. They claimed the letter was a smear and that Fernandez “baselessly” accused them of the “highest possible crimes against the Government of the United States.”
Finchem said in a text message that he is evaluating his options. A person who answered a cell phone number that Kern has previously used hung up when a reporter identified himself and did not respond to a text message. A spokesman for Gosar did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Of the 42 Democrats who signed the letter, Fernandez was the only one who was sued. She was previously the House Democratic leader but was not in Democratic leadership at the time the letter was signed and publicly released. Fernandez resigned from the Legislature last year to take a job in President Joe Biden’s administration.
Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press