Perhaps the headline writer for a Washington Post opinion column framed it best: “Raise your hand if you have not been sued by Devin Nunes.”
Nunes, a conservative Republican congressman from the San Joaquin Valley in California and the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, apparently believes he is a man under siege, and he is fighting back.
He has filed at least a dozen lawsuits against various media companies including CNN (seeking $435 million in damages) and the Post (seeking $250 million in damages), plus a Republican strategist, a political watchdog group, a parody Twitter account called “Devin Nunes’s Mom,” a fictitious bovine on Twitter called “David Nunes’ Cow,” and even Twitter itself. Most of his cases are for defamation, though he has thrown in lawsuits for racketeering, conspiracy, and other matters.
“That’s a lot of litigation for a guy who co-sponsored the Discouraging Frivolous Lawsuits Act of 2017,” wrote Post opinion writer Dana Milbank. “No contagion will stop this man from having his (many) day(s) in court.”
Some of his lawsuits have been promptly thrown out by the courts. In his suit against Twitter, for instance, Nunes was seeking $250 million in damages, claiming that parody accounts on Twitter taunted him and attacks from a GOP political strategist almost cost him his reelection.
A Virginia state court properly noted that Twitter, as merely an Internet social media platform, could not be treated as a publisher and thus had no liability for remarks posted to its site.
The GOP strategist who was sued, Liz Mair, has complained that Nunes’s lawsuits are an affront to free speech.
“[I] will just say that from my standpoint this lawsuit and the other in which I am also being sued by Rep. Nunes . . . remains an assault on the First Amendment and the core American principle of free speech,” Mair was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “Rep. Nunes took an oath to support and defend the Constitution – all of it and not just the bits he likes – and I hope he will take the opportunity to reflect on that fact again today and proceed accordingly.”
Nunes and members of his family separately sued Esquire magazine and one of its former reporters for defamation in federal court in Iowa for a story about the move of the Nunes’s family farm from California to Iowa. Nunes demanded approximately $75 million in damages. His father and brother demanded $25 million.
But the judge threatened to dismiss those suits because they did not adequately state what was false and defamatory.
Some critics are wondering how Nunes is funding his lawsuits, which, if Nunes was paying an hourly fee to his lawyer, could well run into six figures for each suit. Nunes’s chief income is his congressional salary of $174,000 per year, plus his wife’s salary as an elementary school teacher, according to reports. His estimated net worth is below the median for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It seems likely that his lawyer, Steven Biss, is handling Nunes’s lawsuits on a contingency fee basis, which means he would recover a certain percentage of whatever damages may be awarded. At the same time, at least two courts have threatened Biss with sanctions for filing frivolous lawsuits on Nunes’s behalf.
Thus far, Nunes does not seem to have been successful in any of his lawsuits.
Robert D. Lystad is the Executive Director of the non-profit Campaign for Free Speech, based in Washington, D.C.