Politics & Policy

Batchelder Pad

Fact-checking the Times, yet again.

Tuesday’s New York Times ran a breathless story by Adam Liptak suggesting that campaign contributions serve to corrupt state court judges. In support of this conclusion, Liptak cites the example of former Republican Ohio court of appeals Judge William Batchelder, who he states received sizable campaign contributions from the CEO of a company in whose favor the judge ruled. A shocking allegation, and a delicious one for the Times, considering the fact that Batchelder is now in the statehouse, where he is in a contested race to become speaker. There’s just one problem: It’s not true, and thus another page is written in the sorry and continuing decline of the Gray Lady.

Let’s look at what it is that Liptak said:

A similar study of the Ohio Supreme Court conducted by The New York Times in 2006 continues to echo in that state. It appeared about a year after an appeals court there threw out a $212 million jury verdict in a case involving a business dispute between two companies, and it caused the lawyers on the losing side to take a look at who had contributed to the campaign of the judge who wrote the decision. It turned out that the judge, William G. Batchelder, had received a lot of money from Robert Meyerson, the chief executive of the company on the winning side, the Telxon Corporation.

It turns out that Liptak co-authored the October 1, 2006, article to which he refers, and so I am sure that he was gratified that his work triggered the lawyers in this case to uncover the alleged impropriety. As it turns out, however, even this premise is false. Gregory Melick, the attorney for Smart Media (the losing party on appeal), filed an improper and tardy motion with the Ohio court of appeals on January 8, 2007 — more than a year after the court had ruled against his client in the case — alleging impropriety on the part of Judge William Batchelder. In order to succeed on a motion relief from judgment, the law requires that it be filed in a timely fashion, and more than a year after the fact simply would not do. And so, Melick stated that the motion was timely because Smart Media only became aware of judicial impropriety in Ohio because of Liptak’s article, following which they researched contribution records to find the alleged impropriety.

Now, it is worth noting that the motion is not an unbiased reporting of facts, but an interested party’s motion. Had Liptak bothered to read through the motion with care instead of reprinting the allegations wholesale, he would have seen that even this claim – as appealing as it must have been to Liptak’s ego — was contradicted in the filing itself. The campaign-finance documents appended in support of the motion — the very documents that the motion claims were researched as a result of Liptak’s October 1, 2006, New York Times article — show dates indicating that materials were printed on September 18, 2006. That would be before October 1, which if my memory of metaphysics serves me, demonstrates that the subsequent article could not have caused the previous investigation. And so, Liptak reprinted a self-serving and erroneous statement by a litigant in order to self-servingly aggrandize his own former article. It’s the circle of life, Simba.

Alright, but that doesn’t undermine Liptak’s claim that Robert Meyerson, the CEO of Telxon Corporation, made contributions to Batchelder, right? No, but the fact that Robert Meyerson was not the CEO of Telxon should suffice to do that. A look at SEC disclosure documents shows that Robert Meyerson’s term as director of Telxon Corporation ended in 1996, and that Frank Brick was named as CEO of the company in 1997. Smart Media did not file its lawsuit until December 1, 1998, the notice of appeal was not filed in Batchelder’s court until May 7, 2004, and the decision of the court was not rendered until September 21, 2005. In other words, from initial filing to court of appeals judgment, Meyerson was not the CEO of Telxon.

Given that Batchelder was not given an opportunity to respond to Melick’s motion in court, it might just have made sense for Liptak to contact now-Representative Batchelder before he repeated the serious allegations of impropriety. Some — obviously not the editors at the Times — might even think that responsible journalism demands it. Now, don’t get me wrong, it would have required some high-level investigative reporting. After all, Batchelder’s number is listed in the white pages. But it appears that no such call was ever made.

A curious reporter might also have wondered why it is that the attorney in this case singled out Batchelder. While Meyerson did make a direct contribution to a Batchelder legislative campaign in 1996 (more than two years before this case was a twinkle of avarice in attorneys’ eyes), he made no contributions to Batchelder’s judicial campaigns in 1998 or 2000. Thus the weight of complaint (and Liptak’s Dr. Evil-like recitation of one million dollars) stemmed from contributions not made to Batchelder, but to the local Republican party. Yet the decision against Smart Media was made by a three-judge panel, and all three judges were Republicans. Why, then, did the motion not question the independence of all three judges? This omission and the belated timing of the motion raises serious questions — questions that a responsible journalist should have asked — about whether there is not some larger political motivation at play, given that Batchelder is currently running for speaker. Other motivational questions concern whether this could be an attempt to indirectly sully the reputation of his wife, Judge Alice Batchelder of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose name has been mentioned as a potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee. But you would never know these possibilities from reading Liptak’s article.

In the interest of disclosure: I have been friends, have worked with, and have been a constituent of members of the Batchelder family for years. As such, I know that William Batchelder has a reputation in Ohio for being an archetypical boy scout — often to the dismay of his party. Indeed, during a previous stint as chairman of the joint committee on ethics, he even referred his own party’s Senate president for prosecution and conviction. Given Batchelder’s reputation as anything but a party shill, if the New York Times is going to use him as an example of a ethically challenged judge, they had better have their facts straight. To the disservice of their readers, and to the detriment of Batchelder, the public record shows that they did not.

Robert Alt is an NRO contributor.

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