Chilton award withstands appeal

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Dec 20, 2007
by WLJ
February 12, 2007

Group says it will appeal to state Supreme Court.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a petition for certification last week seeking the Arizona Supreme Court’s review of their January 2005 loss in a libel suit won by Arizona rancher Jim Chilton and the Chilton Ranch and Cattle Company. CBD lost for a second time in December 2006 when the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of the Chiltons. The three appellate judges also upheld the jury award of $100,000 in damages and $500,000 in punitive damages to the victims.

CBD asserts that the First Amendment absolutely protects its dissemination of photos and statements to the public through press releases and postings on their Web site. Both the jury and the court of appeals, however, found CBD’s postings to be “maliciously false, unfair, libelous and defamatory” to the Chiltons. Both also found that these postings and press releases were not privileged.

The Center argued that the First Amendment provides it with an absolute privilege to republish false statements to the public that it had previously made in appeal of the Chiltons’ grazing permit authorization to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Susan Seager, a lawyer for the Center, added, “This court held that they lost that privilege.” [This Seager quote is from the Arizona Daily Star, 12-07-2006 article titled “Court upholds award against enviro group.”] According to both the trial court and the court of appeals, however, no such privilege existed in the first place.

“That’s because malicious and defamatory statements submitted to the government don’t become true and aren’t protected when they are repeated by their maker to the public. As the trial judge pointed out, you can’t baptize the devil,” said Jim Chilton.

At the time that CBD targeted the Chiltons, USFS was in the process of renewing the grazing permit on the Chilton’s 21,500-acre forest grazing allotment. The allotment is located south of the historic community of Arivaca, AZ in the rugged borderlands, about 70 miles southwest of Tucson, AZ, where cattle have grazed for more than 300 years. The USFS renewed the Chiltons’ grazing permit based on the Chiltons’ history of excellent management.

“It does not surprise me to see the CBD appeal this case again, even after their two decisive losses,” said Jim Chilton, a stalwart fifth-generation Arizona rancher. “It looks to us like they view an appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court as a third opportunity to go to their donor base for more contributions. I would be embarrassed to seek funds to argue for a right to lie, as CBD appears to be doing here.”

Chilton won the Cattlegrowers’ “True Grit” award in 2005 for his determination to stand up for Arizona ranchers. He knew the range condition data, riparian studies, and soils evaluation all showed good management and refused to let CBD “throw mud at his reputation.”

Native Arizonan Ken Chilton, 90-year-old patriarch of the cattle ranching family, expressed his anger that the CBD defendants, an Australian activist and other new arrivals to Arizona, use under handed tactics to try to eliminate the unique cowboy culture of the American West. “They don’t care at all that they are wiping out whole pioneering families. They are damaging the living history and economic productivity of rural Arizona.”

Tom Chilton, partner in Chilton Ranch and Cattle Company and now vice president of the Arizona Cattlegrowers’ Association, added that, “The western cowboy culture is based on honesty and individual responsibility. It is despicable when others purposely misrepresent the facts to try to destroy Arizona ranching.”

Sue Chilton, who chaired the Arizona Game and Fish Commission until January 2005, emphasized the important role of modern cattle ranching in preserving wildlife habitat. “University research shows managed grazing increases diversity of native plants for wildlife shelter and foraging while providing waters for wildlife.”

The former commissioner added that, “Arizona ranchers are constantly adapting their management based on high-quality range science specifically addressing Arizona grasslands. It is offensive to see environmental activists ignore the scientific data and publish photos of campsites, old mine works, roadsides, and other mislabeled pictures and claim the impact is from cattle.”

Kraig Marton, an attorney from the Phoenix, AZ, based law firm of Jaburg and Wilk who has represented the Chiltons throughout this lawsuit, added, “We believe the jury, the trial judge, and the entire three-judge Appeals Court panel were exceptionally conscientious and attentive to both procedure and fact and understood all of the issues raised by the parties. It’s about time that the Center for Biological Diversity accepts responsibility for its actions.”