|Thursday, June 18, 1998
Ex-councilman's complaint against Jones may have merit
By Sean Whaley Donrey Capital Bureau
CARSON CITY -- At least one Supreme Court justice made it clear Wednesday he believes that Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones libeled former Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Miller in the waning days of their bitter 1991 mayoral contest.
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Miller is seeking a Supreme Court ruling allowing him to take his defamation case against Jones to trial for a statement made in a campaign flier that said:
"A police detective accuses Miller of giving false information in a report concerning cocaine found in a car Miller was driving."
The statement, printed in red in the flier issued days before the election that Jones won, relied on an article that had appeared in the Las Vegas Sun in 1988. Most of the article was reprinted in the flier as well, but in small type.
The accuracy of the article was never questioned, but Miller said the statement in red printed next to the article was false because no cocaine was ever found in the car nor was he driving it at the time, as some could have interpreted from the statement.
The car was a 1977 Porsche purchased by Miller's daughter that he had driven only once. A powdery substance was found by a mechanic when the car was taken to a garage, but it was discarded and never tested.
"When I read this statement, I see 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' " said Chief Justice Charles Springer. "It looks like libel per se to me."
Attorney Sam Harding, representing Miller, characterized the statement as "outrageous conduct." "It was done intentionally," he said.
But attorney Howard Miller, representing Jones, said a lower court properly dismissed the former councilman's defamation claim without a trial. There was no actual malice in the flier, nor was there outrageous conduct, he said.
The question is whether someone reading the statement on the flier would have come to a different conclusion than if the person had read the article itself, Howard Miller said.
The Porsche was legally owned by Miller. He had driven it at least once and had called Las Vegas police in 1988 to ask that it be searched because the unidentified powdery substance had been found by a mechanic.
Howard Miller said the statement was "political hyperbole" in a rancorous campaign, one that involved other outrageous claims and statements.
But Springer said a retraction letter sent to Steve Miller by the Jones campaign admitted that the statement could have been read to mean that cocaine was found in a car while he was driving it.
The four other justices who will rule on the case were not as forthcoming during the oral argument with their views on the case. The court will rule later.
Justice Bob Rose said the statement has to be weighed in the context of the campaign, which included accusations against Jones from the Miller camp.
"We have to judge whether it was over the line," he said. Miller, who attended the hearing, said he would like to see his case used by the court as a warning to politicians. "I'm not in it for the money," he said.
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