Tom Vilsack (2008)
Tom Vilsack (2008) (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon on Monday accused lawyers in the Shirley Sherrod defamation case of going on a “wild goose chase” for evidence. The judge’s solution: putting Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack in a deposition chair as soon as possible.

Vilsack made the decision to oust Sherrod, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator. A lawyer for one of the defendants said Monday that the U.S. Department of Justice informed him Vilsack wouldn’t be available for a deposition because of his position as a senior government official. Leon scoffed at the notion that the government could successfully fight a subpoena for Vilsack’s testimony.

Leon said he’d consider any arguments the government made to block Vilsack’s testimony once he’s subpoenaed. But the judge said he doubted the government could make a convincing legal argument, noting he had deposed cabinet officials in the past. Leon’s message for Vilsack: “Get ready.”

Sherrod sued the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart and one of his colleagues, Larry O’Connor, for defamation in 2011 after they posted a clip of a speech she gave online and claimed it showed she discriminated against a white farmer. Sherrod was forced to resign. Vilsack later apologized—after the full speech was published—and offered her a new job.

Lawyers on both sides have accused the federal government of delaying discovery. One of Sherrod’s lawyers, Kirkland & Ellis partner Beth Williams, told Leon that the Justice Department said it would take the Agriculture Department six months to collect documents both sides want.

Leon said he wants a trial by the fall. He’s repeatedly expressed his frustration with delays in the case. To help narrow discovery issues, he encouraged lawyers to question Vilsack about the Sherrod controversy to get a better understanding of what information they need from the government.

Responding to complaints of delays by the government and by lawyers for Breitbart’s estate, Leon ordered the attorneys to produce certain sets of documents by May 19. “Weekends are for work,” he said.

Contact Zoe Tillman at On Twitter: @zoetillman.