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A small Illinois newspaper settles libel suit, agreeing to pay the state chief justice and drop its appeal.
From the Fall 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 17.
By Matthew Pollack
The Kane County (Ill.) Chronicle, a 14,000-circulation daily newspaper, agreed to apologize to the Illinois Supreme Court chief justice for statements in a series of columns that a jury found libelous.
Attorneys for both sides refused to disclose the total settlement, but a former columnist involved in the case told reporters that the paper agreed to pay $3 million to put an end to the costly legal battle.
As part of the settlement, the Chronicle agreed to drop both its state court appeal of the libel verdict as well as its federal lawsuit against the judge alleging civil rights violations.
The settlement marks the end of a four-year battle over three columns written by Bill Page that accused Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert R. Thomas of impropriety during the disciplinary hearing of former Kane County state’s attorney Meg Gorecki.
In the columns, Page alleged that Thomas agreed to a more lenient punishment for the attorney in exchange for political favors from the attorney’s supporters.
Last November, a jury awarded Thomas a $7 million verdict that the trial judge later pared down to $4 million, noting that the jury decision “shocks this judicial conscience.”
In its appeal, the Chronicle had asked an appeals court judge to overturn the jury verdict, seeking to retroactively apply Illinois’ recently enacted anti-SLAPP law, which provides a broad grant of immunity for citizens and journalists when criticizing public officials.
Controversy marked the libel claim from the beginning, as the Chronicle argued that Thomas’ role as the head of the state’s judicial system denied the newspaper its constitutional rights to “an impartial tribunal” in both the trial and appellate courts and made any semblance of a fair hearing impossible.
In addition to appealing the jury verdict, the Chronicle filed suit in federal court against Cook County Circuit Court Judge Donald O’Brien, Thomas and other Supreme Court justices.
The publisher argued that there was inherent unfairness in asking lower court judges to evaluate the testimony of Thomas and other state supreme court justices who were subpoenaed to provide evidence and support for the chief judge.
The newspaper also sought to prevent the Illinois judiciary from hearing the case because the unique circumstances would have denied the Chronicle a second appellate review in the state court.
With Thomas as the plaintiff and four other current state supreme court justices as witnesses, the Illinois high court would be unable to hear the case on appeal.
Under the terms of the settlement, the Chronicle dropped its federal suit.
Tom Shaw, the president and chief executive officer of the Chronicle, and Page issued an apology to Thomas in a statement released by Thomas’ attorney.
“The newspaper regrets publishing statements that the jury found to be false and in relying on sources who, based on the jury verdict, provided information that was not true regarding Mr. Thomas’ role in the Gorecki case,” the statement reads. “The Chronicle and Mr. Page apologize to Mr. Thomas.”
Page, though, remains defiant, saying he would not have agreed to a settlement and stands by his work.
“That apology runs after my signature,” Page, who no longer works for the Chronicle, told Editor & Publisher. “I stand by everything I wrote and I would repeat it. I’m not backing down from this.”
Since 1980, libel suits by judges have gone to trial 12 times, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York. The judges have prevailed in five of those cases. In two others, the judges, including Thomas, chose to settle the case before a final determination, said center staff attorney Eric Robinson.