WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — The Delaware judge overseeing a voting machine company’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News delayed the opening of the trial. The delay on Monday raised the prospect that the two sides might settle before the eagerly watched case goes before a jury.
Superior Court Judge Eric Davis suggested the sides try to mediate their dispute, according to a person close to Fox who was not authorized to speak publicly about the status of the lawsuit. Attorneys for both sides who appeared in court Monday declined to answer reporters’ questions about the delay, as did representatives for both companies.
Davis gave no explanation for delaying the trial’s start until Tuesday, although he did note that delays are common and built into the schedule. Jury selection and opening statements were planned for the first day in a trial that, if it happens, is expected to last six weeks.
“This is not a press conference,” Davis said during Monday’s brief hearing. “I don’t do that.”
A trial would force Fox to answer for its actions in the weeks after the 2020 presidential election and litigate denial about the outcome of the race in general. The case centers on whether Fox defamed Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems by spreading false claims that the company rigged the election against then-President Donald Trump.
A settlement is certainly a possibility in a trial that carries risks for both sides. Fox already has been embarrassed by revelations that some of its executives and on-air personalities did not believe fraud claims that the network spread on the air, and it doesn’t want to see 92-year-old founder Rupert Murdoch testify. Dominion could miss a big payday if a jury rules against it.
Not everyone wants the case to go away quietly, however. “PLEASE Dominion—Do not settle with Fox! You’re about to prove something very big,” tweeted Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox anchor whose accusations of sexual misconduct by former Fox chief Roger Ailes led to his downfall in 2016.
Fox, meanwhile, paid for a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on Monday headlined “Trusted Now. More Than Ever.”
Dozens of journalists gathered at the courthouse in downtown Wilmington, some before dawn, for a hearing that lasted about five minutes. The courtyard in front of the court building was full of TV crews ready to do live shots.
Besides its implications for Fox, the case is being watched carefully by journalists for what it could mean for libel law. Defamation is generally hard to prove, since it requires a finding that journalists published information they knew to be false, or with a reckless disregard for the truth.
Some First Amendment lawyers say Dominion’s lawsuit presents a powerful case, given the doubt expressed within Fox about the fraud allegations. Fox says Dominion can’t prove that the people with such doubts were in position to affect what was said on the air about the company.
Even before a jury hears the case, Davis has made some rulings in Dominion’s favor, including stating that the allegations of election fraud made against the company were clearly false. That means the issue will not have to be litigated in the trial.