Mike Zinna: Appeals court affirms activist's right to legal fees in free-speech battle

A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has affirmed that developer-turned-gadfly Mike Zinna is entitled to substantial legal fees in his long-running feud with Jefferson County officials -- who, he claimed, tried to intimidate him, put him under surveillance and violated his constitutional right to free speech. The panel's ruling also takes the unusual step of removing senior district judge Richard Matsch from any further action on the case, saying Matsch ignored the appeals court's directives in awarding Zinna only minimal attorney's fees in the case. See also: Jefferson County officials show Mike Zinna that what goes around comes around

Zinna, the subject of our 2008 cover story "The Lords of Payback," launched a website exposing official misconduct in Jefferson County after a real estate deal with the county went bad. County commissioners -- including Jim Congrove, a one-time Zinna ally -- responded by using sheriff's officers and a private investigator to shadow him and research his background, and by interfering with his ability to comment and ask questions at public meetings.

Zinna sued. In 2009 a jury awarded him $1,791 in damages against Congrove, a figure derived from the year the Bill of Rights was ratified. Judge Matsch ruled that Zinna's victory was a "technical" one at best and awarded him only $8,000 in legal fees -- a thousand dollars for each day of trial. Zinna, who now lives in California, appealed that decision, seeking more than $500,000 in legal fees.

The dispute outlived Congrove, who died in 2012. That same year the 10th Circuit panel overturned Matsch's award, insisting that Zinna's work as a blogger was entitled to the same protections as that of any journalist: "Although his reporting was somewhat hyperbolic, Zinna uncovered several public scandals, including an incident of sexual harassment that resulted in the resignation of two county officials.... Zinna may not have been engaged in high journalism, but we do not agree that his tone undermined the value of his work."

Matsch then awarded Zinna around $33,000 in trial and appellate fees. But the panel says that still isn't good enough, and has assigned the task to another judge.

Zinna says he's moved on to other endeavors but is now working on a screenplay about the case: "The script is still rough, but a lot of people are interested in participating. It's a story that needs to be told -- if for no other reason to let people know that long before social media changed our world and helped keep politicians in check, there were a few scumbags that had no problem using their authority to trounce the First Amendment and retaliate against people who disagreed with them." Have a story tip? Send it to [email protected]