Thursday, July 29, 2004
Burcham suit to get outside judge
The case is drawing the attention of scholars and lawyers around the state.
A defamation lawsuit filed by Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham is on hold because the city's circuit judges have recused themselves.
The city judges have asked the Virginia Supreme Court to find a judge to handle the case instead, according to Burcham's lawyer, Stan Barnhill.
Burcham sued local online columnist Bill McClure last month over his account of a January encounter in a grocery store parking lot in the Tanglewood Mall area that she says never happened.
While there have been some local First Amendment-based lawsuits involving public governmental figures and the media, such instances are rare and Burcham's case is believed to be the first of its kind involving a Roanoke city manager. Burcham's position and her community status prompted the circuit judges to remove themselves from her case to eliminate any possible appearance of impropriety, said Barnhill and McClure.
Barnhill had asked for an Aug. 24 hearing, but said that date is now uncertain.
In a column last winter, McClure, of roanokejournal.com, detailed a Jan. 24 incident that he said he witnessed. He wrote that Burcham was driving erratically, failed to yield properly, and almost caused McClure to wreck his vehicle. McClure wrote that Burcham then acted in a callous manner when he tried to approach her about it minutes after the incident occurred.
McClure wrote on the Web site, "There have been whisperings and rumors of both your driving record and your supposed lack of people skills. ... If you treat a seemingly total stranger this way, how do you treat your employees and others?"
Burcham, who first threatened to sue McClure just days after his column appeared, maintains that she was not in the parking lot in question that day.
McClure's initial column and continuing refusal to issue a retraction and full apology are part of a malicious campaign to injure Burcham's reputation and to undercut her support within the city council for which she works, according to her lawsuit. She is asking for $20,000 in damages.
McClure, who had said that he likely would represent himself, said this week that he's now planning to hire a lawyer to help him prepare his defense.
As the case awaits a court date, it is drawing the attention of scholars and lawyers around the state. It was featured in an article about Internet defamation in the latest issue of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, a trade publication for attorneys.
Radford University political science professor and roanoke.com columnist Reginald Shareef addressed the subject recently, too.
In a July 12 column titled "Thin Skin," Shareef examined several local situations involving the actions of governmental officials.
On the Burcham matter, Shareef credited the city manager for hiring a private attorney at her own expense to pursue the matter, but said he doesn't believe her case has the essential elements - malicious intent, an intentional assertion of a provable falsehood and irreparable damage to her reputation.