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A settlement was announced Thursday in the four-year-old libel suit that Bob Thomas, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, brought against the tiny Kane County Chronicle and its former columnist Bill Page. “The Chronicle and Mr. Page apologize to Mr. Thomas,” says a joint statement from the two sides, which made a warm reference to “a spirit of reconciliation.” Page immediately repudiated the apology. “Let me be the first to say it’s bullshit,” he told me. “I stand by everything I wrote. . . . If he wants to come after me again, let him come.”
Thomas sued on grounds that Page defamed him in three 2003 columns that accused Thomas of playing politics with a disciplinary case before the supreme court — “political shimmy-shammy” is how Page put it. Thomas won the jury trial a year ago (scroll down) and was awarded $7 million, a sum trial judge Donald O’Brien later sliced to $4 million. Libel litigation often doesn’t really get going until the appeals phase, which is when the Chronicle brought in a big gun from Washington, celebrated First Amendment attorney Bruce Sanford. The settlement, hammered out before U.S. magistrate Sidney Schenkier, knocks the award down to $3 million and turns off Sanford’s meter. “An accounting decision,” says Page. The lawyers agreed to keep the amount private, but Page didn’t see any reason for that and immediately announced it.
Sanford’s appellate counterattack, while it lasted, was a fascinating piece of work. He had the Chronicle and Page sue Thomas and the rest of the state supreme court in federal court on grounds that the supreme court — and in fact the entire state court system — had violated their civil rights by imposing on them a judicial process, overseen by Thomas as chief justice, in which a fair hearing was impossible. Marveled federal judge Ruben Castillo at a hearing in August, “That’s pretty unusual to be litigating in the state courts and in the federal court and asking a federal court to, in effect, enjoin a pending state court proceeding.” Meanwhile, Page and the Chronicle were also mounting a charge in the state courts. They asked the verdict for Thomas to be overturned on grounds that it violated Illinois’ new Citizen Participation Act, which wasn’t passed until August 28 but in their view “provides blanket immunity to speech regarding the affairs of government,” and should apply anyway.
I asked Thomas’s attorney, Joseph Power, what he made of Sanford’s lawyering. “I think it bordered on sanctionable conduct,” Power said. “In federal court when you file frivolous actions you can be sanctioned and fined.” He said the federal suit “seemed like the kind of action a mentally deficient pro se defendant would file.”
At the very least, the federal suit accomplished this: it put the dispute into an arena uncontaminated by Thomas’s position and influence. Castillo named Schenkier to oversee mediation, and an agreement was quickly reached. Sanford “is a piece of work,” said Power, but he spoke warmly of Sanford’s sidekick, Bruce Brown, and said that once Sanford went back to Washington progress was rapid.
In the long run, said Page, “it was just too damned expensive” to keep fighting. “There’s a lot of disappointment . . . Bob Thomas is who I said he was and I’d love to show everybody that. But it’s done.”