The judge's first question in the hearing on state Sen. Stacey Campfield's request to dismiss the libel suit filed against him by former Democratic House candidate Roger Byrge didn't bode well for the plaintiff:
"What's a blog?" asked Campbell County Circuit Court Judge John McAfee of Campfield's lawyer, Jonathan Taylor.
Some two hours later, McAfee granted Campfield's motion for summary judgment and tossed Byrge's defamation suit, ruling that although Campfield, who was then a state House member, posted an ugly falsehood about Byrge on his blog two weeks before the November 2008 election, he didn't do it maliciously or with reckless disregard for the truth. In McAfee's view, it's just politics.
As Byrge walked out of the Campbell County Courthouse after the hearing, he said he was feeling beaten down and disinclined to ever run for office again. He also said he was disinclined to appeal McAfee's ruling.
"This is why good people don't want to run for office," he said. "The judge just gave people like him the green light to say anything they want to about you, ruin your reputation whether it's the truth or not."
By the weekend, however, Byrge and his lawyer David Dunaway appeared to have changed their minds.
"I'm leaning toward appealing," Dunaway said on Sunday night. He had tried to convince McAfee that Campfield's motive for posting the falsehoods is a question of fact that should be decided by a jury, not a question of law to be decided by a judge.
Byrge says a poll by a Nashville firm showed him 8 percentage points ahead in mid-October, and that his younger son, Corey, who was then 13, found the allegation on Campfield's blog, Camp4U, while Googling his father's name for election news. Campfield's entire October 14, 2008 blog post is quoted in court documents (bravely ignoring the $1,000 per-word penalty Camp4U threatens for unauthorized quoting). It began with a rant about election coverage he viewed as slanted against Republicans and ended with a request that local media cover a legislative race that was close to home, too close to call, and featured titillating details (the "sic" notations are as they appear in the affidavit):
"…Where the story isn't just alcohol related but is drug related? How could it be better? How bout (sic) if the person convicted was running against a police officer? Where could we find such a race? Such an interesting dichotomy (sic)? How bout (sic) where Roger Byrge is running against police officer Chad Faulkner? Word is a similar mail piece has gone out exposing Byrges (sic) multiple drug arrests for possession and dealing. (I hear the mug shots are gold)."
Byrge's lawsuit says Campfield's post was based on "…ill will, disdain and dislike for any Democrat in the 2008 elections, and also on his loyalties to the Republican Party."
Campfield says it's all the fault of House Republican Caucus Chair Glen Casada, who told him about the Byrge/Faulkner race.
"Is Glen just a knucklehead?" McAfee asked.
Casada and the Tennessee Republican Party were named as defendants in the lawsuit, but were dismissed in 2010. The terms of their settlement are confidential.
Casada told Dunaway, via deposition, that he had "an informal telephone conversation" with Campfield about the Faulkner/Byrge race.
"The information I had was preliminary and I characterized it as such. It had been provided to me by researchers for the Tennessee Republican Caucus, as part of the Caucus's efforts to gather information on candidates and races across the state. My words to Stacey were, we may have a record of a felony on Roger Byrd."
Further, Casada said this was "a heads-up" only.
"I did not intend for any unverified information to be disseminated, and I qualified my comments to Mr. Campfield. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to verify anything before Stacey Campfield posted his blog."
Shortly thereafter, Casada said his researchers learned that the subject of the golden mug shots wasn't candidate Roger Byrge, but his son, Roger Derick Byrge.
When asked to give names, locations, and phone numbers of his research analysts, Casada named Brent Easley and Scott Gilmer, whose addresses and phone numbers were 103 War Memorial Building and 106 War Memorial Building, respectively. Both have Tennessee state government telephone numbers, raising possible Little Hatch Act questions about state employees doing opposition research on state time in state buildings on state computers and telephones. Campfield's computer is also state-owned.
In 2009, Gilmer, also identified as an aide to Casada, pleaded no contest to violating state election law by using fake Web domain names to attack Democratic House incumbent Nathan Vaughn of Kingsport. It was during that time that the Tennessee Republican Party sent out a direct mail piece depicting the African American Vaughn as a blackbird. Shortly thereafter, former House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower said Vaughn was "better suited to be representing inner-city Memphis than the rural hills of East Tennessee."
Vaughn and Byrge both lost, and the GOP gained a one-vote majority—its first in decades.
Dave Dunaway not only is a zealous advocate for his client, he might just be Stacey Campfield's worst nightmare. An old-school Democrat whose father was a Teamster, and whose first job was selling newspapers in Happy Holler at the age of 10, he graduated from Fulton High School in 1967 and got involved in politics at an early age. His political mentor was the late Democratic power broker Ted Ray Miller, and he ran against John J. Duncan Sr. for Congress in 1982. In the past few months, he has deluged General Assembly members with e-mails and phone calls opposing Gov. Bill Haslam's Worker's Compensation reforms, which make it more difficult for workers to collect disability payments for on-the-job injuries.
He clearly appears to relish the notion of taking on the state's loudest right-winger. He made a copy of Campfield's 120-page deposition part of the official record of this case, allowing media outlets and Campfield critics to feast on embarrassing personal details like his estimation that most of his legislative colleagues probably didn't even know how to turn on a computer. Dunaway pronounced it "The most arrogant deposition I've ever taken."
An extraordinary demonstration of the tension between the two occurred just before last week's hearing when Dunaway had the judge sign off on a worker's comp settlement before taking up the Campfield motion. Campfield and Dunaway were sitting no more than 15 feet apart when his client—an elderly-appearing woman whose twisted spine gave her a rightward list—inched her way to the front of the courtroom on a tripod cane. Byrge, a soft-spoken, courteous man who has retired from his job as a Campbell County Sheriff's deputy, stood and gave her his seat.
Campfield became a captive audience while Dunaway, who is not soft-spoken, proceeded to tell the woman how the state Legislature had "screwed" her.
He used her case to illustrate the inequities he sees embedded in Tennessee's Worker's Compensation laws, which Campfield strongly supports. He told her that she's fortunate to have gotten her claim resolved before the new law kicks in next year.
"You know who benefits from this?" he asked, shooting a glance Campfield's way. "The insurance companies and the self-insured, that's who. And you know who's self-insured? Pilot. A blatant conflict of interest."
Campfield rolled his eyes.
Dunaway segued into Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey's temporarily stymied plan for judicial reform, which he labeled another Republican power grab:
"And if they (the Republican Supermajority in the General Assembly) have their way, they're going to go after this next"—he pointed to the judge's bench.
At that point, McAfee entered the room. Crew cut with a touch of swagger, he looks like the military man he is (lieutenant colonel, United States Army Reserves; military judge, 2nd United States Army; combat tour, Mogadishu, Somalia; judge advocate general officer, XVIII Airborne Corps).
Dunaway introduced his disabled client, and said she is a 46-year-old who had been a stay-at-home mom until her children were grown, whereupon she went to work as a cook in at a Cracker Barrel and was injured in a fall before she could earn enough to qualify for Social Security benefits. After a couple of years of wrangling, she was awarded a settlement of $100,000.
"That's $100,000 for life," Dunaway said, adding that the settlement amount would be $60,000 less under the pro-business state "reforms" due to kick in next year. Later, during a break in the proceedings, Dunaway chided Campfield for not responding to his numerous e-mails on the worker's comp issue.
McAfee signed off on the judgment and said, "God bless you" to the disabled woman, who hobbled out of the courtroom as Round I of Byrge v. Campfield began.
Corrected: Byrge's younger son's first name is Corey, not Coby.