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Star wins appeal for reporting on ex-judge who fired shot in confrontation

Arizona Daily Star

The Arizona Daily Star and two of its reporters did not defame a Tucson attorney, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

The decision came in an appeals court case filed by the Star after Superior Court Judge Cynthia T. Kuhn declined to dismiss a lawsuit against the Star and the reporters.

The state Court of Appeals has ruled that the Arizona Daily Star did not defame a Tucson attorney in its reporting of a 2021 confrontation between a Pima County justice of the peace and a stalker.

Arizona Daily Star

The case involves a story and chronicle about a Tucson judge’s confrontation with a stalker. In February 2021, then-Pima County Justice of the Peace Adam Watters fired a gun into the ground during a confrontation with Fei Qin, a man who was stalking Watters, and threatened to kill Qin, police say. and court documents.

During Qin’s trial for harassment, a jury heard evidence that Watters’ family was upset after several incidents in which Qin-related trash was left on their lawn. Around the same time, the tires on the judge’s truck were punctured twice.

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Qin was sentenced to 1.5 years in state prison for harassing the judge, and the Pinal County prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute Watters. Later, during a hearing before the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct, Watters accepted a resolution barring him from continuing as a judicial officer after his term, which expired at the end of 2022.

The libel suit was filed by Watters’ daughter, local attorney Caitlin Watters, who was present during the confrontation with Qin, and was armed with a shotgun and in a concealed position.

The lawsuit alleged that a March 2021 news article by Star reporter Carol Ann Alaimo falsely implied that Caitlin Watters quit her job as a Pima County prosecutor in connection with the incident. The lawsuit also alleged that a later opinion column by Star columnist Tim Steller included false and misleading statements.

The appeals court ruling was written by Judge Michael F. Kelly with the concurrence of Presiding Judge Karl C. Eppich and Judge Christopher J. O’Neil, the other two members of the panel that heard the affair.

Kelly’s decision said the Court of Appeals did not find the statements in the two articles to be defamatory.

But “even if we reached a contrary conclusion as to the defamatory nature of the statements in question, we would find that the respondent judge erred in dismissing the motion for summary judgment on the basis of a lack of actual malice,” wrote Kelly. “Actual malice” is a legal standard in defamation cases that applies to plaintiffs who are considered public figures. Such a plaintiff must prove that a defamatory statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was false”.

The ruling filed Thursday afternoon returned the case to Kuhn’s court “with an instruction to grant summary judgment” in favor of the Star.

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