Raleigh, N.C. — As my friend Gary Robertson reported yesterday, representatives of N.C. Citizens for Progress were trying to claim the high philosophical road yesterday.
"We're trying to defend ourselves in being able to run ads," Michael Weisel, a lawyer and treasurer of the group formed to, among other things, hector Republican gubernatorial nominee Pat McCrory.
For those who came to this story late: N.C. Citizens for Progress is backed by the Democratic Governors Association and other folks who would like to see Walter Dalton, the Democratic lieutenant governor, win the state's top job this fall. To that end, they have aired ads throughout the summer, including one that draws a tenuous connection between McCrory's work as mayor and his later service on a corporate board.
McCrory got mad and threatened to sue. Citizens for Progress essentially counter-sued, asking the court to find their ad to be truthful. McCrory dropped his original defamation claim, but Citizens for Progress have pressed on.
Jack Hawke, a consultant for McCrory, will tell you his candidate's honor was satisfied because Citizens for Progress stopped running the ad in any serious way.
"In my opinion, this is a complete abuse of the court system," Hawke said.
And he's right up to a point. Imagine every political campaign in the state running to the courts asking that their ads be declared true, given that many of the spots we're fact checking this year stretch the truth. Judges could be forced to put a legal stamp of approval on ads that may not be libelous but certainly aren't completely truthful.
But as Weisel points out, McCrory is also trying to game the court system a bit. He sent letters to television stations threatening to sue if they ran the ads and did file paperwork giving notice that lawsuit was coming, even though the Republican eventually backed off.
Now, that's what all those involved have to say in order not to get spanked by the courts. Judges tend to frown on being drawn into political games.
However, one of the reasons Citizens for Progress got really excited when McCrory started rattling the legal saber is it gave them an opening to use the legal process to their advantage.
McCrory has not released his tax returns, saying that he has released all the information he has to under the law. (He's right about that. Dalton voluntarily released his returns, but that doesn't put any legal obligation on McCrory.) But both Dalton and Citizens for Progress have made this a transparency issue, trying to turn McCrory's refusal into the same what-is-he-hiding story line that national Democrats have pursued against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Citizens for Progress have also been suggesting that the list of clients McCrory works for as business consultant would be instructive. And they seem more than keen to get the man himself into deposition.
And while all that might have some legal application, it would also provide fodder for more television ads here in the remaining 70 days of the campaign.
"This is just a fishing expedition," Daniel Boyce, a lawyer for McCrory, told Judge Paul Ridgeway.
There's more to the case, which is an interesting one. Boyce insisted there was no way it could reach trial before Election Day, making the proceedings moot.
Ridgeway himself seemed to be interested in an argument by David Wisz, a lawyer who works with Weisel, that the threat of litigation have kept Citizen for Progress off the air, at least at some stations.
However, Ridgeway said flat out that he was uninterested in how the case affected politics.
Toward the end of Wednesday's hearing, Boyce again called the Citizens for Progress suit a fishing expedition.
"The motivation ... is to get Mr. McCrory's tax returns through the civil discovery process and to find out about his relationships with all these different companies," Boyce said.
Ridgeway cut him off.
"That's an issue for a different day," Ridgeway said. All that may be true, but it's not relevant to the question at hand, he said.
"I understand the political realities, the political drama. But that's not what's before the court," Ridgeway said.
The question, he said, at least at this point, is whether the Citizens for Progress group is entitled to seek some legal relief due to the threats issued by McCrory's campaign.
That's the legal decision that both sides will be waiting for over the next few days. Depending on how Ridgeway answers that legal question, it could have some very interesting political implications.