Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Former governor Deval Patrick should be immune from a claim that he defamed a state employee because the comments he made about her came while he was acting in his official capacity as governor, an attorney representing Patrick argued Monday before the state Supreme Judicial Court.
The facts of the case are complex and personal. But should Patrick prevail, it could set a powerful new precedent in Massachusetts: that governors can’t be sued for defamation for statements they make on the job.
The lawsuit was filed in 2014, when Saundra Edwards, whom Patrick had appointed chairwoman of the Sex Offender Registry Board in late 2007, accused him of wrongful termination and of making defamatory comments about her to reporters.
Patrick’s brother-in-law had been convicted of raping Patrick’s sister in California in 1993, and when the couple moved to Massachusetts, there was a question about whether the brother-in-law must register as a sex offender.
A hearing officer at the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board decided the brother-in-law did not need to register because the crime of “spousal rape” in California was not equivalent to the crime of rape in Massachusetts, which requires registration.
Edwards, however, was accused in a separate suit, brought in 2008 by the hearing officer, of interfering in the case to see that the brother-in-law registered. She argued she was simply trying to correct a mistake and that “spousal rape is rape.”
The alleged defamation came after Edwards was forced to resign. When reporters questioned the then-governor about Edwards’s departure, Patrick said the “final straw” was her “inappropriate” and possibly “unlawful” interference in a case involving his brother-in-law.
Those comment prompted Edwards to file the 2014 suit.
So far, the courts have not accepted Patrick’s claims that he should be immune from defamation claims for things he said as part of his official duties.
Superior Court Judge Richard Welch II in March of last year denied Patrick’s motion to dismiss the case, writing that the Supreme Judicial Court “has yet to recognize an absolute privilege covering statements or actions made by a governor within the official scope of his or her duties.”
In court Monday, Patrick’s attorney sought to establish just such a privilege. A similar privilege has been adopted in other states and at the federal level, Patrick’s attorney, Michael J. Pineault, said outside the courtroom.
Pineault has filed a motion to dismiss the case, which the court is expected to rule on in coming months. Patrick, currently a managing director at Bain Capital, was not in court Monday.
An attorney representing Edwards argued a governor does not have the right to say whatever he or she wants about employees, and argued that, in this case, Patrick knew what he said about Edwards was false.
“The absolute privilege simply goes too far,” attorney William H. Sheehan III told the six justices, led by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.
Edwards is seeking compensation, including three times her lost wages and benefits, and attorneys’ fees.
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