Kicking Back

Why would Illinois Supreme Court justice Robert R. Thomas, a rugged former placekicker for the Bears, sue a small newspaper’s scrappy columnist for defamation? Some observers believe the judge wants to clear the air before making bigger political moves.

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On May 15, 2003, the Kane County Chronicle published a column by a feisty journalist that accused the Illinois Supreme Court justice Robert R. Thomas-otherwise known as Bob Thomas, a former placekicker for the Chicago Bears-of letting politics influence his decision on a case.

 

Although the Chronicle is published in Thomas’s Second Judicial District, the column did not set off many ripples. And why would it? After all, the paper claims a circulation of less than 15,000, and Bill Page is regarded as something of a loose cannon. Besides, the suggestion that politics could work its way into the court system these days probably does not qualify as earth-shattering.

Nonetheless, Joseph Tybor, the supreme court spokesman, called the paper, insisting the accusation was wrong. Page wrote yet another column, expanding on the accusation. Several months later, after the case in question had been decided, Page wrote a third.

Not long after, Justice Thomas, now 52, took the unusual-and, to some observers, somewhat puzzling-step of suing the columnist, the paper, and the paper’s managing editor for defamation. The suit, Robert R. Thomas v. Bill Page, raises a number of thorny issues-among them, that of who should hear it. Already, the judges on the Kane County Circuit Court have withdrawn to avoid the appearance of conflicts, and the case is before a Cook County judge. Appeals could potentially bring the litigation before Justice Thomas’s six colleagues on the state supreme court. The justices are unlikely to be eager to grapple with the matter, yet they have already been drawn in-the defense has sought to subpoena them for documents relating to the case that Bill Page wrote about.

Perhaps the biggest question concerns Justice Thomas’s motives for going to court. Using the visibility gained in a decadelong career with the Bears, he won election to the bench with relatively little experience as a lawyer, and he subsequently got elected to the appellate court and, in 2000, the supreme court. Despite his rapid ascent and background as a professional athlete, he has earned a reputation as a capable jurist. Faced with a few critical columns in a small paper, why would Thomas bother? Lots of court watchers wonder.

David Sanders, a media defense lawyer with the Chicago firm Jenner & Block, says that in three decades of practicing law, he has seen very few high-level judges file libel cases against news organizations. While declining to address Justice Thomas’s case specifically, he says one reason for the relative rarity of such cases is that judges probably recognize that they should sue over only the most outrageous of published material “because of the great strain that a judge’s libel case can place on the judicial system.”

Were Page’s columns outrageous enough, and is Thomas’s case strong enough, to justify this suit? The case is a year old, and it is still difficult to know.

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