NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · SEVENTH CIRCUIT · Libel · June 12, 2007
Newspaper asks federal court to block libel award
June 12, 2007 · An Illinois newspaper company sued 11 Illinois judges today, alleging that their handling of a libel case brought by the chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court violated its constitutional rights.
The Shaw Suburban Media Group, publisher of The Kane County Chronicle, filed the lawsuit in federal court challenging the way the Illinois state courts handled the libel lawsuit that resulted in an initial award of $7 million for Chief Justice Robert Thomas. Thomas brought that libel suit in 2004 after a columnist suggested “a little political shimmy-shammy” was behind Roberts’ handling of a lawyer discipline case.
The judge who oversaw the trial later reduced the award to $4 million, saying the original amount “shocks this judicial conscience.”
The newspaper’s lawsuit does not directly address the merits of Thomas’ libel claim. Instead, the newspaper contends it has been denied adequate judicial review of its appeals within the Illinois court system because Thomas is in charge of the judges that make up that system. Because of these procedural problems, the newspaper has asked the federal court to block the enforcement of the $4 million award and to prevent any future proceedings in state court until Thomas leaves the bench.
“I have never seen anything like it before,” Bruce W. Sanford, who is representing the newspaper, said in a statement. “A Chief Justice enlists his colleagues on the bench as his witnesses to help him win a huge trial verdict and then expects the newspaper to be satisfied with its right to appeal within the court system he controls. It’s simply not fair, and the public’s perception of the fundamental fairness of our judicial system is central to the integrity of the courts.”
The newspaper alleges that Thomas had a hand in selecting judges who will hear the case and that those judges have a conflict of interest. As evidence of this conflict, the newspaper points to the recognition of a “judicial deliberation privilege” in the case, a first for Illinois courts, which protects from disclosure during trial information concerning discussions among justices ruling in a case.
The existence of such a privilege prevented the newspaper from gathering evidence to determine the truth of the “political shimmy-shammy” comments in the 2004 column that sparked the libel lawsuit.
The newspaper also points out that it will not be able to obtain the review of a state high court because members of the Illinois Supreme Court testified at the original trial and will presumably be forced to recuse themselves from future proceedings. Already, the newspaper’s challenge of the recognition of the “judicial deliberation privilege” did not obtain Supreme Court review because enough members recused themselves that the court was unable to grant or deny the newspaper’s request that it hear the case.
In addition to Thomas, the newspaper’s lawsuit names the other justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, the three judges on the state appeals court who ruled on the existence of the judicial deliberation privilege, and the trial judge who handled the case.
(Shaw Suburban Media Group v. Thomas, Media Counsel: Bruce W. Sanford, Baker & Hostetler LLP, Washington, D.C.) — NW