Monday, October 15, 2007

Illinois paper, circulation 14,000, agrees to pay state's chief justice $3 million to end libel case

For four years, the Kane County Chronicle of Geneva, Ill., one of its columnists and the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court have been fighting over a series of columns that criticized the justice via anonymous sources. Last week the 14,000-circulation paper agreed to pay Justice Robert Thomas $3 million, raising questions about community journalists' ability to hold the judicial system accountable and the system's ability to handle cases involving judges.

In 2003, columnist Bill Page, drawing from anonymous sources, criticized Thomas (a former Chicago Bears kicker) for how he handled the
misconduct case a former Kane County state’s attorney. Thomas filed a libel suit and a jury awarded him $7 million, which a judge later reduced to $4 million. The newspaper, owned by Illinois-based Shaw Newspapers, appealed the verdict. In the settlement, the Chronicle made an apology and said, "The newspaper regrets publishing statements that the jury found to be false and in relying on sources who, based on the jury verdict, provided information that was not true." The story said Page also apologized, but he told The Chicago Tribune that he would "never back down" from his columns.

The Chronicle argued that it could not get a fair appeal as long as Thomas still headed the state court. Some of his fellow justices were witnesses in the case.
On the other hand, an attack on a judge's reputation can mean a career-damaging loss of respect. But the threat of a lawsuit by someone who is part of the judicial system could lead some to curb their coverage and criticism -- especially if they lack the same level of libel insurance that Shaw Newspapers seems to have. For Tom Musick's story in the Chronicle, click here.

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