2000 lawsuit shadows Cooper

No one need complain to N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper about how long it can take state courts to resolve a case. He's fighting a defamation lawsuit that won't go away.

Cooper, a Democrat, is running for a third term while defending himself against a lawsuit by his Republican opponent in 2000. The legal battle is over a campaign commercial that year, the first time Cooper ran to be the state's top lawyer. The case could set a national precedent over whether a candidate can successfully sue an opponent over a political ad.

Lawyers sparred in court Monday, but 7 1/2 years after the suit was filed, it's still not ready to go to trial.

“It really is not a distraction for him,” said Jim Phillips, a Greensboro lawyer leading Cooper's defense team. “He's spending his time doing the things that he ran on: fighting crime, protecting consumers.”

Gene Boyce, one of the Raleigh lawyers suing Cooper, said Cooper's lawyers are responsible for much of the slowdown.

“They know how to drag a case out,” said Boyce, whose son, Dan, ran as a Republican against Cooper in 2000 and was the target of the campaign ad.

The Boyces' lawsuit says the commercial erroneously criticized Dan Boyce and his law firm for seeking a large fee in a class-action tax case against the state. Dan Boyce argues that he didn't work on that case; his father did. He worked on a companion case with his father. His current law firm also didn't exist when the tax case was filed. Boyce's name is not on the court filings in that case, but Cooper's lawyers contend that Boyce did not make a distinction between the tax cases in his campaign.

In Monday's arguments, Cooper's lawyers asked to have Wake County Superior Court Judge John Lewis recuse himself from the case. He was among hundreds of taxpayers who benefited from the 1990s lawsuit that was mentioned in Cooper's campaign ad and that has become the source of considerable dispute in the case.

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox heard the arguments and denied the request for Lewis to step aside.

Two lengthy appeals have contributed to the duration of the case. Boyce said it would have ended years ago if the plaintiffs weren't lawyers who can invest their own time and money.

No trial date has been set.