Bruce Sanford of Washington DC is one of the nation’s best-known First Amendment lawyers, and he’s just signed on to the legal team handling the appeal of the $7 million libel verdict for Bob Thomas, chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
Last month a jury decided that former columnist Bill Page and the Kane County Chronicle had libeled Thomas in three 2003 columns. It would have been a nice thing for anyone who takes seriously the dignity of the courts if Thomas at that point had declared that his reputation had been restored, the money wasn’t important, and it was time for the Illinois judiciary to put the litigation behind it. Indeed, Thomas did offer terms; but Page says the offer was a remarkably ungenerous: $6 million plus a retraction. Page and the Chronicle didn’t respond.
Instead, the appeal goes forward and Sanford is aboard. What has always made Thomas’s suit so awkard is the fact the chief justice oversees the judicial system that has to deal with it, and this problem only gets worse at the appeal stage. Ultimately, Page and the Chronicle’s appeal would be heard by the supreme court – that is, by a court led by the plaintiff, and consisting of justices who appeared as witnesses for Thomas at last month’s trial.
Page’s columns accused Thomas of playing politics in a 2003 disciplinary case before the supreme court that involved Meg Gorecki, at the time the Kane Count state’s attorney. Thomas allegedly got the court to go easy on Gorecki, and in return her political supporters endorsed a judicial candidate Thomas favored. But Page couldn’t produce witnesses who backed up his columns – his says his sources were confidential and they refused to come out of hiding.
In the run-up to trial, the defense leaned heavily on judicial ironies and paradoxes, and Page says there are others he’d liked to have seen introduced at trial. For example, in 2000, Thomas’s attorney, Joseph Power, either personally or through his law firm donated some $20,000 to the election campaign of supreme court justice Thomas FitzGerald and $10,000 to the reelection campaign of justice Charles Freeman. In short, at trial these two justices were providing helpful testimony to an attorney who’d helped put them on the court.