The Bob Thomas lawsuit just surfaced again, as bizarrely dramatic as ever. The side that lost round one launched an ingenious counterattack. 

Thomas is chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. In January 2004 he sued the Kane County Chronicle and Bill Page, then a Chronicle columnist, over some columns Page had written a few months before. According to these columns, Thomas, a “Republican party heavyweight” from DuPage County, was “pushing hard for very severe sanctions” when a disciplinary case involving the state’s attorney of neighboring Kane County came before the supreme court. But in the end state’s attorney Meg Gorecki got off with a brief suspension of her law license.

“Ah, yes. Politics,” Page wrote by way of explanation. “The four-month suspension is, in effect, the result of a little political shimmy-shammy. In return for some high profile Gorecki supporters endorsing Bob Spence, a judicial candidate favored by Thomas, he agreed to the four-month suspension.”

Thomas sued for defamation. He said that that “shimmy-shammy,” if true, was the kind of thing that would have gotten him indicted for official misconduct. Last November a Kane County jury ruled for Thomas and awarded him $7 million in damages. Bruce Sanford, a famous First Amendment lawyer from Washington, D.C., was promptly hired to lead the appeal.

The merits of the Thomas lawsuit are of passing interest. The contortions it’s forced the Illinois judicial system into are historic. The defense has maintained from the get-go that the suit should be dropped because under the circumstances state courts simply cannot provide justice. The plaintiff is, after all, the state’s top judge, for whom ever other judge who has considered the case, in a sense, works. The witnesses to any “pushing hard” and then relenting that Thomas might have done when the supreme court convened to consider Gorecki would have been the other justices. And a lower court ruled at one point that those justices are shielded by an “absolute deliberation privilege” from the usual cross-examining.

On March 30 trial judge Donald O’Brien cut Thomas’s damages to $4 million.  O’Brien observed that the only testimony that Thomas had suffered a “loss of reputation” came from Thomas himself and sliced the $5 million the jury awarded Thomas for said loss to $3 million. As for the $1 million going to Thomas to compensate him for “future economic loss,” the hypothetically lost opportunity to become either a federal judge or an equity partner in a major Chicago law firm, O’Brien said an offer to become either was sheer speculation and eliminated that award entirely.

On Tuesday, in an aggressive move that has Sanford’s fingerprints all over it, Page and the Chronicle sued the chief justice in federal court, accusing him of violating their civil rights. The suit — which also names as defendants the six other supreme court justices, three appellate court justices who’d dealt with Thomas’s suit, and Judge O’Brien — asks the federal court to stop Thomas’s suit dead in its tracks. The suit argues that Page and the Chronicle’s appeal can’t possibly get a fair hearing in state courts because the supreme court justices oversee the appellate courts and are themselves the court of last appeal. The suit was assigned to Judge Blanche Manning.

A news release that accompanied the suit when it was e-mailed to reporters provided us with a choice comment from Sanford that I’ll bet his office honed for days. “I have never seen anything like it before,” he said. “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.” A “background” sheet was another part of the press kit. “The state court judgment should be made unenforceable,” it asserted. “If Chief Justice Thomas still wants to sue when he’s a private citizen, let’s start over with a new trial. At the very least, the appeal should be stayed . . . until Chief Justice Thomas and the Supreme Court Justices who testified for him are off the bench.” 

There’s a “we’ve just begun to fight” panache to all this. Paragraph two calls Thomas’s lawsuit a “constitutional cancer.” Page two says it has “compromised the independence and integrity of the Illinois judicial system from top to bottom.” The suit immediately goes on to say, “Within weeks of the filing of Chief Justice Thomas’s complaint in 2004, the procedural ‘shimmy-shammy’ that has come to define the case was already well underway.” Thomas’s own suit is now being offered as evidence that Bill Page had his number all along.