(Politico) – A federal appeals court has issued an unusual order overturning a lower court’s ruling that Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack must sit for a deposition in a libel lawsuit former USDA employee Shirley Sherrod brought in connection with her forced resignation in 2010 following a web posting that portrayed her as a racist based on video clips of a speech she delivered.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Thursday afternoon that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon abused his discretion when he ordered Vilsack to testify as part of pre-trial discovery in the suit where Sherrod accused late conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart and business partner Larry O’Connor of defamation.
“It is well-established that ‘top executive department officials should not, absent extraordinary circumstances, be called to testify regarding their reasons for taking official actions,'” the appeals court panel wrote. “As such extraordinary circumstances are not present in this record, the district court abused its discretion by allowing the deposition of Secretary Vilsack at this stage in the proceedings.”
The order (posted here) does not appear to foreclose the possibility that Vilsack could be subpoenaed later in the discovery process or at a trial in the case, if one takes place.