NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · ILLINOIS · Libel · Nov. 16, 2006
Jury awards judge $7 million in libel suit
Nov. 16, 2006 · An Illinois jury has decided that a suburban newspaper owes Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Thomas $7 million in libel damages.
In a lawsuit against former Kane County Chronicle columnist Bill Page and Chronicle owner Shaw Newspapers, Thomas said that he was defamed in 2003 when Page wrote that Thomas’ vote had been improperly influenced by political favors.
The jury this week awarded Thomas, a former Chicago Bears football player, $5 million for harm to his reputation, $1 million for mental suffering and $1 million for future monetary losses. The original lawsuit asked for $17 million.
Stephen J. Rosenfeld, the attorney who defended the Chronicle and Page, believes the columns, which the trial judge ruled were news articles and not opinion pieces because of specific wording in the text, hardly affected Thomas’ reputation.
“We certainly think that this ruling is without basis,” Rosenfeld said. “He was elevated to chief justice after the columns were published. He is going to be honored by about 50 bar associations in a few weeks.”
The Chronicle will likely appeal the decision, Rosenfeld said.
The columns written by Page said Thomas lowered the punishment in an attorney disciplinary case against Kane County State’s Attorney Meg Gorecki. Page wrote that Thomas initially considered disbarring Gorecki but changed his mind after local political leaders agreed to back another judicial candidate favored by Thomas.
The accusations in the articles suggest Thomas committed a felony: official misconduct.
Thomas said that Gorecki’s punishment was lessened to a four-month suspension for non-political reasons. All but two of the other Illinois Supreme Court justices testified on his behalf.
The case prompted a state appeals court to rule last year that justices are protected from revealing discussions between themselves because of a “judicial privilege.”
Page argued that he based the articles on information from confidential sources.
But jurors said that Page wrote the articles with “actual malice,” or knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — the standard public figures such as Thomas must meet to successfully sue for libel. One juror made it clear that protecting the sources was not the issue, but rather the carelessness on behalf of the paper.
“We all understand and respect confidential sources,” said Kelly Groves, 26, in a Chicago Tribune article. “We just feel if they would have done a little work, they should have been able to substantiate this without confidential sources.”
Rosenfeld feels the decision could make reporters reluctant to criticize members of the judiciary.
“I think this decision should give journalists pause in reporting and in criticizing judges,” Rosenfeld said.
(Thomas v. Page, Media Counsel: Stephen J. Rosenfeld, Mandell Menkes LLC, Chicago) — KO