The Gage County Courthouse in Beatrice, Nebraska, where Johnson County District Court Judge Rick Schreiner held a hearing Tuesday in the civil lawsuits between former Nebraska gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster and State Sen. Julie Slama. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
BEATRICE, Nebraska — Dueling lawsuits about one of eight groping allegations that jostled the end of Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial primary race reached a courtroom for the first time Tuesday.
Johnson County District Judge Rick Schreiner heard lawyers argue parts of five motions concerning the discovery process that lawyers use to gather information for civil cases. Four of the filings came from lawyers for unsuccessful governor candidate Charles Herbster, who did not attend the hearing. One came from lawyers for State Sen. Julie Slama, who attended.
How they got here
The filings involve dueling lawsuits initiated by Herbster and Slama. Herbster sued Slama for defamation after she was named as one of eight women alleging in an April 14 Nebraska Examiner article that Herbster had groped them. He has denied wrongdoing.
Slama counter-sued Herbster, alleging sexual battery and defamation. She says Herbster reached up her skirt and touched her inappropriately during a 2019 fundraising dinner in Omaha.
What happened Tuesday
The judge took parts of two Herbster motions under advisement. One argued the propriety of adding evidence to the legal filings alleging defamatory statements. The other sought protective orders against being sanctioned for missing a deposition date that Slama’s attorneys scheduled during the stretch run of the primary campaign, as well as a protective order seeking to limit what Slama’s attorney can say about the case publicly.
The day’s most meaningful progress came during an hour-plus discussion that Schreiner pressed the lawyers to participate in privately at the courthouse. Schreiner paused the proceedings after Slama’s lawyers told him they had gotten no response from Herbster’s team about negotiating on the timing and possible limits to subpoenas.
The judge pressed the lawyers to resolve their differences about a number of issues involving the depositions and subpoenas, including when Herbster will sit for a deposition in Slama’s lawsuit.
Slama’s attorneys have already notified Herbster’s attorneys that they intend to depose Herbster on July 20, the Nebraska Examiner has learned. Herbster’s attorneys offered no immediate comment.
Herbster’s legal team had filed motions seeking to limit the scope of several subpoenas that Slama’s legal team is pursuing involving Herbster and his political staff.
Herbster’s team argued Tuesday that the businessman’s deposition should wait until filings in the case are narrowed. They also argued that Herbster shouldn’t have to answer questions that could consume up to two days.
Slama’s attorneys argued that Herbster shouldn’t have missed the first deposition date in early May. They argued that their questions should take as long as needed for answers.
The judge said he saw nothing in Nebraska law that required waiting for filings to be amended before proceeding with depositions. He also expressed skepticism that a protective order was needed.
He ordered the lawyers to brief him on the protective order and keep negotiating over narrowing subpoenas. The first round of new filings is set for July 1, and responses are due July 15.
Schreiner spent much of Tuesday’s hearing refereeing disputes between the lawyers about which side, if any, had improperly “tried” the civil case in the news media instead of arguing in court.
Herbster attorney Theodore Boecker alleged that Slama attorney Dave Lopez was running afoul of court rules limiting what can be said about a case in public.
Lopez’s legal teammate, Marnie Jensen, objected, offering seven exhibits of Herbster and his campaign team making statements in the press about the allegations at the heart of the case.
The judge did not immediately set a next court date. He encouraged the lawyers to work things out. The lawyers said they would try to make progress on disagreements about discovery.
Politics vs. the law
Schreiner said that he has no interest in having political arguments in his courtroom and that he wants to center this case on the law.
Herbster has argued that the allegations against him were political, alleging a conspiracy by Gov. Pete Ricketts and University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen to help Pillen win the GOP nomination for governor. Ricketts and Pillen have denied being part of any political conspiracy.
Political observers have said the updated legal complaint Slama filed after the May election may have been meant to communicate to Herbster that Slama remained serious about suing him.
“None of this has ever had anything to do with politics,” Slama said Tuesday in Beatrice. “From day one, this has been about trying to protect young girls from going through what I went through.”
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