Board weighs damages of obscenity suit 

Some obscene damages

The Ravalli County Board of Commissioners has decided to settle the legal damages arising from the county’s loss of a 1999 lawsuit over three obscenity ordinances.

The board’s attorney, Jim Mickelson, says the county made an offer to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Cederberg, Shott and Smith, though he declined to name the amount. The law firm made a counter offer, but the county turned it down, deeming it too high.

Last year county commissioners learned that the damages sought by the Missoula law firm could be as much as $80,000. They were advised then by their former budget director to negotiate and cut their losses.

The issue dragged on for several months and was complicated by the fact that the damage claim is only one part of the decision the board must make regarding the obscenity lawsuit. Commissioners must still decide whether to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

The lawsuit was filed in the early 1990s by a handful of individuals and businesses, including the Ravalli Republic newspaper in Hamilton.

They claimed that three anti-obscenity ordinances that were approved by voters were unconstitutional and harmed their businesses, which include a book store, a photography studio and a video rental store.

In late 1999 District Judge Jeff Langton found for the plaintiffs. That left two issues for the county commissioners to handle: negotiate the damage claim and/or appeal the ruling.

When the commissioners put the appeal issue on their agenda, they were lobbied intensely by a roomful of people who showed up with Bibles and babies. The crowd, made up mostly of mothers and children, pleaded with the commissioners to appeal the ruling. Commissioners made no decision at the time, other than to turn down an offer from a law firm in Tupelo, Miss., which had offered to represent the county pro bono in an appeal.

Those who advocate an appeal have said they want the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. County commissioners and other officials have said privately that they too would like to see the case appealed because they believe the Montana Supreme Court will uphold the lower court ruling, possibly putting the case to rest permanently.

The commissioners still have not made a decision on whether to appeal the ruling, concentrating first on settling the claim for lawyers’ fees.

Mickelson says the county is proceeding with discovery and are awaiting answers to interrogatories sent to the plaintiffs’ lawyers last October. The county also will seek depositions from the plaintiffs in an effort to determine whether the high legal fees are justified.

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