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 Already, the judges on the Kane County Circuit Court have withdrawn to avoid the appearance of conflicts, and the case is before a Cook County judge.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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Bill Page, now 56, has made a reputation as a journalist not afraid of strong opinions. “You either love him or you hate him, depending on what the issue is,” said Susan Klinkhamer, the mayor of St. Charles, who hastened to add: “He’s never done anything bad to me.”

Page’s columns regularly stir up the hornets’ nest of mostly Republican-on-Republican rivalries that characterize the western suburbs, where Page worked as a columnist for the Daily Herald, based in Arlington Heights, before moving to the Kane County Chronicle. (In 2001, he wrote a freelance article for Chicago about a criminal case involving a hired hit man.) Along the way, Page has made enemies among the politicians and operatives he covers.

“He hurts people needlessly, and he does it for sport,” says the state senator Chris Lauzen, a Republican, who contends that he has been unfairly attacked in print by Page on numerous occasions. Lauzen characterizes Page’s opinions as being based less on political views than on “who his friends are.”

The Republican political consultant Jon Zahm-an enthusiast of Thomas’s-says he has also had many run-ins with Page over the years. “I consider Bill Page to be unworthy of print, an unreliable source, a biased and petty individual,” says Zahm.

But another Republican consultant, Ellen Nottke, who says she is a friend of Page’s, dismisses the criticisms as the whining of his worthy targets. “I don’t always agree with Bill Page,” Nottke explains, “but he doesn’t spread rumors, and he doesn’t tell lies.”

In 2004, the Illinois Associated Press named Page the state’s best newspaper columnist in the Chronicle‘s circulation category. Among the columns cited by the AP judges as an example of Page’s excellence was his November 25, 2003, effort-one of three cited by Justice Thomas in his suit. (It is not known whether the judges-Indiana newspaper editors-were aware of the suit.)

The three columns discuss Thomas’s role in deciding the fate of the Kane County state’s attorney, Meg Gorecki. Not long before she ran for the office as a newcomer in 2000, Gorecki left a message on a friend’s answering machine implying-falsely, she later said-that the friend could win a county job if she made a contribution to the campaign fund of the Kane County Board chairman. News of the tape came out a few weeks before the primary election, and despite the ethical questions raised, Gorecki won the primary and then the general election. A complaint was filed with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, however, and that board recommended a suspension. Eventually, the matter went before the Illinois Supreme Court.

By spring 2003, Page was at the Kane County Chronicle, and in his May 15th column he reported on Gorecki. “It doesn’t look good for our state’s attorney,” Page wrote. He went on to say, “It seems that Justice Bob Thomas is pushing hard for very severe sanctions-including disbarment. Other justices do not agree, with at least two opting for simple censure, but Thomas’s pressure could result in a ‘compromise’-a year’s suspension of Gorecki’s law license.” Page went on to imply that Thomas was urging the tough sanctions because Gorecki had “had the audacity to run against the sitting GOP state’s attorney [David Akemann] in the primary-and the popularity to beat him.”

Thomas’s complaint says that the court spokesman, Joe Tybor, called the Chronicle‘s managing editor, Greg Rivara, to complain that the implication in the column was false. The next day, Page sent an e-mail to Tybor’s assistant saying, “I know your job is to put out positive PR, but you might also want to let the entire court know the nightmare of bad publicity they’ll be facing if Thomas is allowed to influence their decisions.”

On May 20th, Page published another column, elaborating on his original charge and quoting several unnamed political insiders as saying Thomas was “out to nail” Gorecki.

Fast-forward to November 20th, when the supreme court issued its opinion on the sanctioning of Gorecki-ordering a four-month suspension of her law license. Five days later, Page published a column accusing Thomas of compromising on the lesser punishment “in return for some high profile Gorecki supporters endorsing Bob Spence, a judicial candidate favored by Thomas.” The column added, “Getting her out of office, after all, is what this case has really been about from day one. It isn’t about a dumb message left on a tape, and it isn’t about some sense of moral outrage. [Kane County politicians and Justice Thomas are] hardly the crew to express that emotion. No, this had nothing to do with right and wrong, or stupid mistakes. It had everything to do with politics.”

(Ultimately, Gorecki completed her suspension and then served out her term. But she did not run for another one.)

The November 25th column prompted another call from Tybor to managing editor Greg Rivara. Steven Baron, the Chicago lawyer defending Page, Rivara, and the paper, says that Tybor demanded a retraction-“a front-page rebuke.” (Neither Page, Rivara, nor Tybor would comment for this story.)

Meanwhile, Thomas’s lawyer, Joe Power Jr. of Chicago, sent a letter to the paper asking it to have its attorney or its insurance company contact him regarding the Thomas situation. The letter went unanswered, and in January 2004 Thomas filed his suit in the Kane County Circuit Court. Thomas and Power asked for unspecified damages beyond the minimum $50,000 needed to get the case into circuit court.

In an interview, Power said he thought he could show that the columnist had no sources for his information and that it wasn’t Thomas “out to nail” Gorecki, but rather Page who was out to smear the justice. Steve Baron responds that Page “has sources.”

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Is there any precedent for a state supreme court justice suing a newspaper for libel?

Chicago could unearth only one, and that case was in Pennsylvania. Although 21 years old, it has yet to be resolved despite the fact that the justice, James T. McDermott, died 12 years ago, and his original lead trial lawyer and other witnesses have also died, according to the Philadelphia media attorney Amy Ginensky, who is defending the newspaper being sued, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In that suit, McDermott claimed that the Inquirer had libeled him when it published a series of articles in 1983 accusing him of corruption. Despite various rulings and appeals and the judge’s death in 1992, McDermott’s three sons continue to press forward with the case.

But the Kane County Chronicle is not the Philadelphia Inquirer. In filing the suit, Thomas has probably ensured that the charges in the small newspaper’s columns get vastly bigger and longer play than the columns ever did. Meanwhile, Baron has subpoenaed the six other justices on the state supreme court for memos and other high-court documents about the Gorecki and Page cases, a request that the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, has moved to quash. (The other justices on the court will not comment on the matter, Tybor says.)

And what will happen if appeals bring the litigation before the state supreme court? “There is literally no provision or precedent in Illinois for what you would do in this situation,” says the longtime Chicago legal journalist Rob Warden.

(In fact, the Thomas suit has already raised an issue for the Illinois Supreme Court. In September, attorneys for the cigarette maker Philip Morris USA requested that Power, who was representing the plaintiffs in a high-profile case against the company, be removed from the case because he was Thomas’s lawyer. The justice did not participate in the ruling on that motion, and the court said that Power could stay on the case, from which Thomas recused himself.)

On top of the procedural complications, Thomas faces a tough battle on the law. As an elected public official, he must prove either that the defendants knew the information was false or that they acted with reckless disregard for the truth-both hard charges to prove. Kenneth Kraus, a Chicago lawyer who teaches media law at DePaul University, says that defamation cases brought by public figures are harder to prove than those brought by private parties. “I have counseled people that, even if you win, you’ll generate so much publicity, it’s not worth it,” he says.

Despite the obstacles, Power says, Thomas is making a simple statement with his case: “You can’t lie about me.”

Baron says the case sends another message: “I think it’s a sad day for newspapers and opinion columnists if they can’t write an opinion column about public figures without fear of retribution in the form of a lawsuit.”

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Stocky, with a round head, chipmunk cheeks, and large eyes, Supreme Court justice Robert Thomas is a grayer version of the Bear who kicked for the team from 1975 through 1984. Today, he describes both his careers in unassuming ways.

The son of Italian immigrants-his father was “a fender and body man” at a collision repair shop in Rochester, New York-Thomas found his way to football from soccer, in which he excelled at a Jesuit high school in the late 1960s. As a kicker, he did well enough-hitting one 45-yarder, considered a long field goal in those days-to get several football scholarship offers.

“But my parents knew that in my heart I wanted to go to Notre Dame,” he recalls. (In an interview, Thomas would talk about his background and careers but not his lawsuit.) He was in South Bend for a year and a half before winning the scholarship, and in 1973 he kicked the winning field goal in the Sugar Bowl to help Notre Dame win the NCAA national championship. By then, Thomas’s major was government, because he wasn’t “science oriented” enough for premed. He was named an Academic All-American in 1974.

Drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, then cut, he was signed in 1975 by the Bears. Although he got his law degree from Loyola University of Chicago in 1981 while playing for the team-and even practiced law in some of the off-seasons-his football career meant a lot to him then and still does. With some emotion, he tells the well-worn story of the day he was cut from the Bears in favor of the younger, longer-booting rookie Kevin Butler (cruelly, it turned out, on the eve of the 1985 Super Bowl season).

“I was pretty broken up,” Thomas recalls. “So I go downstairs to the locker room. When no one’s in it, it’s like the most desolate place on the face of the earth. . . . So I walked to my locker . . . and there’s Walter [Payton], sitting on my shoes. . . . We went outside . . . and he buried my head in his chest, and in my opinion the greatest football player who ever played the game talks to me about what it meant for him to play with me for ten years.”

Thomas, who regularly attends Bears alumni functions, calls his hug from Payton the highlight of his career.

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By Thomas’s account, the move from kicking footballs to deciding cases was not all that tough. Shortly after being released by the New York Giants in 1986 following an injury, he spent a few months as a corporate attorney at KemperSports Management. He left to become a partner at the Wheaton law firm of Guerard, Kalina, Musial, Ulrich & Varchetto. Early in his career, Thomas says, he was told by a partner that he would make a good jurist because he “saw both sides of an issue.” The comment stuck with him, and he ran in the Republican primary for a DuPage County Circuit Court judgeship in 1988, narrowly beating two sitting associate judges. In the general election, when his Democratic opponent, Greg Freerksen, accused him of not having enough experience as a litigator to be a judge, Thomas countered that his experience as a football player made up the difference. “I’ve been scrutinized by the public for the last 12 years,” he told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “I’ve been booed by 60,000 people. How upset can I be if an attorney doesn’t like my opinion?” Thomas won again.

Six years later, he ran for an Illinois Appellate Court judgeship from the heavily Republican Second District. Thomas garnered two-thirds of the votes in the primary and faced no opposition in the general election. And in 2000, he ran for the state supreme court. Again he traded on his football celebrity, running on the slogan “A New Kind of Upright” and getting campaign help from the former Bears coach Mike Ditka. He carried the GOP primary against two well-heeled opponents-one of them Bonnie Wheaton, who spent about $1.5 million, outdoing him almost three to one-then had an easy time against his Democratic opponent in the general election.

In surveying the success of his judicial career, Thomas says that he used his celebrity and good ratings from bar groups as campaign assets to avoid relying on the Republican Party for support. “I have never been a part of the whole party system,” he insists.

The United Republican Fund contributed $5,000 to his primary campaign for the supreme court, an amount that Lee Newcom, a past president of the fund, characterizes as modest for a supreme court race. Thomas raised the rest of his $654,000 elsewhere. Other contributions came from corporations such as Caterpillar, Allstate, and the Torco Auto Group, and more came from old friends-Ditka kicked in $5,000.

Joe Power, a Democrat and now Thomas’s lawyer, gave him $23,000. “I thought he was fair on the bench [at the circuit and appellate levels],” Power explains. The two were classmates at Notre Dame 30 years ago. “He was a big man on campus,” Power recalls with a laugh. “I was just Joe.”

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In general, Thomas has earned good marks as a judge. Court observers say he is known for his well-written, thoughtful, and often fiercely argued opinions. Rob Warden, now the director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, says, “I believe Thomas is an honorable, well-meaning guy.”

Greg Freerksen, the primary opponent in 1988 who accused Thomas of not having enough experience, remembers being annoyed by Thomas’s retort that kicking field goals under pressure qualified him to be a judge. But now Freerksen says, “As silly as that comment was, there’s some truth to it.”

Still, Thomas is sometimes cited as evidence of the decline in stature of the Illinois Supreme Court. An institution once known for its intellectual giants is now available to an ambitious lawyer with a recognizable name and a few moneyed connections, or so the argument goes.

One of the men often mentioned as a giant, Seymour Simon, a supreme court justice in the 1980s, does not completely agree. “People always tend to look back,” he says. Simon points out that when he was a judge, critics wished he and his colleagues were more like Walter Schaefer, who was on the court from 1951 to 1976. But during Schaefer’s tenure, Simon points out, “two judges had to resign in disgrace.”

Simon expresses confidence in today’s court, but he thinks the system of electing judges should be tossed out in favor of merit-based appointments. “My support for merit selection is not that the election system corrupts the court,” he says. Rather, Simon thinks that many good lawyers “do not want to run the gauntlet of a fundraising campaign or a vigorous election.” If Illinois eliminated the election system, Simon reasons, “you’d have a higher caliber of attorney seeking appointment.”

But turning to merit selection would require an amendment to the Illinois Constitution, and factions within both political parties have too many competing interests for a reform plan to make headway. Meanwhile, there is no end in sight to the escalating cost and politicization of judicial campaigns. In the supreme court race decided this past November, the two candidates in southern Illinois’s Fifth District raised a record sum-a combined $8.5 million-inspiring the eventual winner, the Republican Lloyd Karmeier, to tell the Associated Press, “Basically that’s obscene for a judicial race. . . . How can people have faith in the system?”

Against this backdrop, some observers suspect that charges of political wheeling and dealing by judges are likely to escalate.

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Unless there is a settlement, Thomas v. Page could stay in court for years. Late last summer, Cook County Circuit Court judge Donald J. O’Brien Jr. denied a defense motion to dismiss; he says the case will probably not be heard until 2006.

Neither the lawsuit-nor Bill Page’s accusations-have discouraged the political speculation around Thomas. Illinois Republicans considered him, among many others-both before and after the Jack Ryan flap-as a candidate in 2004 for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald. Thomas does not rule out a run for political office, although he insists that he is happy on the supreme court. In September, he will take over for Mary Ann McMorrow in the rotating three-year term as chief justice.

Jon Zahm, the Kane County Republican political consultant, says Thomas’s relative youth and judicial prominence make him “worthy of reaching the highest levels” of the political or judicial system.

Thomas’s former coach and fellow Republican agrees. “I hope he goes all the way to the White House,” says Mike Ditka.

A onetime NFL placekicker, in the White House?

“Hey, Jerry Ford was a football player. So was Eisenhower!”

In fact, future political ambitions might be the only strategic explanation for Thomas’s decision to sue a small-time columnist like Bill Page. Left unchallenged, Page’s accusations could become mud for future political opponents to sling at Thomas.

And anybody who knows anything about kickers knows they don’t like getting their uniforms dirty.