MISSION VIEJO – James Corbett, the high school history teacher successfully sued by a former student for disparaging Christianity in class, says he believes he may lose his federal appeal after being backed into a legal corner by a lower court’s ruling.
In a lengthy Letter to the Editor published Friday on the Register’s website, Corbett explained that U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana framed his ruling against Corbett in such a way that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may have no choice legally but to side with student Chad Farnan. The 9th Circuit is considering the appeal now.
All of the other statements cited in Farnan’s lawsuit were deemed acceptable under the First Amendment’s establishment clause, a law that has been interpreted by the courts to mean government employees cannot display religious hostility.
“My attorney believed a fair application of Lemon Test would turn in my favor, but the test fails in a case such as mine both as a matter of law and of logic,” Corbett said in an interview. “Had I gone to court, I could easily have demonstrated that the recordings were edited and that Chad’s claim of ‘damages’ was false.”
Dan Spradlin, an attorney hired by the Capistrano Unified School District to defend Corbett in district court, could not immediately be reached for comment.
After Corbett was sued in December 2007, Spradlin advised him to seek summary judgment from a judge, rather than allow the case to proceed to a jury trial.
Corbett said that in retrospect, this decision prevented Farnan from being cross-examined under oath about whether he spliced and edited the lectures that he tape-recorded, and thus whether they could have been taken out of context.
“It was Selna who backed me into a corner with a ruling that, on the one hand made it appear as if Chad had a case, and on the other hand, prevented me from having a day in court,” Corbett said. “I was never asked (by Selna) about the ‘superstitious’ comment at all, so I was never given the chance to explain the context. It wasn’t even part of Chad’s complaint. Selna pulled it out by himself during the hearing, and Dan (Spradlin) did his best to explain it, but the defendant has no right to speak in a hearing, so Selna never heard from me on the phrase.”
In an interview, Farnan’s attorney, Jennifer Monk, said she believed the outcome of the case would have been the same if it had gone to a jury trial. She also denied the tapes were edited or out of context.
“It’s very easy and convenient for Dr. Corbett to say that without any proof,” Monk said. “I can’t imagine how we could have spliced it to make it sound more or less than what it is.”
If Farnan had been cross-examined, Corbett also said he would have had the opportunity to try to poke holes in Farnan’s premise that he sued his teacher because his constitutional rights were being violated.
“A trial would have revealed Chad to be a confused young man who was little more than a pawn in the hands of the Advocates for Faith & Freedom (Farnan’s attorneys), who used the publicity generated by the case to line their pockets,” Corbett said in his Letter to the Editor.
“The main charge is that I was ‘hostile’ to Chad’s religious views,” Corbett wrote. “In that regard, he was asked (in his deposition), ‘Did Dr. Corbett ever criticize any opinion that was ever expressed by any student in the class?’ Chad said, ‘Well, yes, mine.’ He continued, ‘Well, he probably didn’t know that I had that opinion. …I really didn’t say anything ever.’ My attorney asked, ‘He never criticized anything you said?’ Chad responded, ‘Well, I didn’t really say anything in class, so I guess, no.’ To put it more succinctly, Chad admits I never criticized anything he said, because he said nothing.”
Monk said that Corbett’s recent efforts to disparage his former student and question Farnan’s motives were irrelevant to the facts of the case.
“It doesn’t matter why Chad filed the lawsuit,” Monk said. “Dr. Corbett might think it matters, but it doesn’t matter legally. The law is the law.”
Although Selna ruled against Corbett on the Creationism comment two years ago, the judge also noted Corbett would not have necessarily known he was violating Farnan’s constitutional rights and thus barred the teacher from having to pay attorney fees and damages under a “qualified immunity” defense. Qualified immunity is a form of federal protection for government employees who have violated an individual’s constitutional rights.
Both sides have appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit. Corbett is seeking to be vindicated; Farnan is seeking a stronger ruling against Corbett, and for Corbett’s qualified immunity to be tossed out.
Corbett is now represented by a team of pro-bono attorneys led by nationally renowned constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school.
A three-member panel of federal appellate judges heard the case Feb. 11 in Pasadena; a decision is pending.
The 9th Circuit court, which has given no indication of how it might rule, has wide discretion with this case. It can rule on any or all of the arguments presented, declare portions to be moot, and/or send the case back to the trial court.
Corbett remains in his teaching position; Farnan, who brought the lawsuit as a sophomore at Capistrano Valley High in December 2007, is now a freshman at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
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