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Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane has been ordered to pay attorney fees for filing a frivolous suit. On Thursday, Lane was ordered to pay attorney Mark V. Spix $5,594.75 in attorney fees after her libel complaint against him was found to have been “interposed for � harassment.” Lane filed the libel suit against Spix in the days leading up to last July’s election. In her complaint, she alleged that a Spix campaign flier libeled her because it misconstrued events in a child-cruelty case she presided over in the mid-1990s and portrayed her as letting a “child abuser off.” She dropped the suit one day after beating Spix by a 20 percent margin in the July 20 election. Lane “could not have reasonably believed she was in a position to show the allegedly defamatory statements were made with actual malice,” wrote Senior Judge Mathew Robins, the former chief judge of DeKalb County, Ga., State Court who sat by designation in Fulton State Court last week for the case. Lane, as a public figure, would have been held to the higher standard of proving that the statements made about her involved “actual malice.” Based on his review of the record and the evidence, Robins wrote in his order that the suit brought by the Superior Court judge “lacked substantial justification.” Quoting from O.C.G.A. � 9-15-14 (b), the statute governing the standard for awarding attorney fees in a case such as this, Robins said that Lane’s case “was substantially frivolous, substantially groundless or substantially vexatious.” He also wrote that the complaint was “interposed for � harassment.” Robins’ award covered the defendant’s expenses from one day after the original filing to seven days later when Lane dropped the suit. However, Robins clipped four hours of work done by the lead defense counsel, L. Lin Wood Jr., after finding that the answer was not filed out of necessity. Although Wood had a 30-day window to do so, he filed the answer three days after Lane initiated suit. His demand for dismissal was filed at the same time. At Wood’s rate of $475 an hour, the four-hour reduction deducted $1,900 from the award. Reached Friday morning, Spix commended Robins for his willingness to issue an order sanctioning another judge. “I’m gratified there was a judge courageous enough to sign this order,” he said. “I wish that kind of judge would get elected in Fulton County — not the kind that files frivolous lawsuits.” Lane did not return two calls seeking comment for this article. THE FLIER THAT STARTED IT ALL Lane filed the libel suit in the days leading up to last July’s judicial elections. The complaint focused on a flier issued by Spix’s campaign that Lane said twisted the facts and even associated her with one case for which she wasn’t the judge. Lane v. Spix, No. 04-VS-069359-J (Fult. St. filed July 13, 2004). Although she dropped the suit, Spix pursued the case to recover his legal fees. “Here’s the reason the team of Spix and Wood went forward on it: That tactic should be prevented in the future,” Spix said. “And without this ruling, why would anybody not think that was A-OK?” Spix stood by the overall content of the flier, although he conceded that some changes might be appropriate. On one side, the mailer depicts a young girl sitting in a fetal position and clutching a teddy bear. To the left of the girl, the mailer says: “She killed her son � the Judge gave her probation. She broke her daughter’s leg � the Judge threw out the guilty verdict. Why did Judge Bensonetta Tipton Lane let this child abuser off?” The flip side of the mailer, under a section labeled “The Facts,” says: “A mother pled guilty in the death of her two-month-old son. The Judge gave her 10 years’ probation. Soon, the woman returned to court for breaking her 18-week-old daughter’s leg. This time a jury found her guilty, but Judge Lane threw out the verdict. Then, the woman regained custody of all her children.” The unnamed judge who sentenced the woman to probation was former Fulton Superior Court Judge William B. Hill Jr., now a partner with Ashe, Rafuse & Hill. The flier doesn’t mention his name, however. Although she didn’t mention it in her libel suit, Lane did throw out the mother’s guilty verdict after citing her own failure “to give proper limiting instruction to the jury with regard to the limited purpose for which the similar transaction [from the case before Hill] had been admitted into evidence.” State v. Ruffin, No. Z-72057 (Fult. Super. April 29, 1996). The second time around, the jury acquitted the defendant. Lane’s campaign manager, Atlanta attorney G. Brian Spears, filed the libel suit on the judge’s behalf. In an interview with the Daily Report, he said no decision had been made as to whether Lane would appeal the ruling. He defended Lane’s decision to sue. “Judge Lane is a terrific judge,” he said. “It is a shame another lawyer would misrepresent her record in an effort to get elected. � It was from start to finish a legitimate suit.” For his part, Wood said, “I’m very pleased with Judge Robins’ decision. This was not about money as much as it was about principal. And hopefully, this entire episode will serve as a lesson for candidates in the future: Keep your disputes in the political arena and out of the courthouse.” CHANGING ONE WORD Looking back, Spix said he would have changed one thing about the flier. At last week’s hearing, Robins noted several times that the statements contained in the flier — taken individually — seem to be true. But Robins said that taken together they “communicate something that is not true.” Spix conceded that “when presented the way they are [the statements] led to an assumption that is wrong.” He said he would not have injected Hill’s name into the campaign literature. But, Spix said, he would have written “a Judge gave her probation” rather than “the Judge gave her probation.” The one-word change would not diminish the fact that Lane “threw out the verdict” because she committed an error in her charge to the jury, he said. “She let that woman off because she [Lane] made a mistake,” Spix said. “And she made a mistake suing me.”

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