Writer, chief justice fight for reputations
As jurors sit down this week to decide a defamation case brought by Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Thomas, they can choose from a couple of theories.
Lawyers for Thomas, the former Bears placekicker who now heads the state's judiciary, cast the case as a struggle to clear their client's name of malicious smears they suggest could cripple his career.
Lawyers for the Kane County Chronicle, former columnist Bill Page and other defendants say it's about free speech, and an elected official's attempt to quash legitimate expression of opinion.
It's a rarity for a sitting Supreme Court justice to appear as a plaintiff in a civil suit. And for two weeks in a Geneva courthouse, spectators have been treated to judicial curiosities: a string of justices on the witness stand, where attorneys addressed them "your honor"; and lawyers from the Illinois attorney general's office representing the judge-witnesses, posing their own objections to questioning.
But behind the rhetoric and the judicial star power, the case has often seemed to boil down to a simpler, time-tested plot line: two men in an all-out fight for their reputations.
In 2003, Page wrote three columns claiming Thomas was biased against former Kane County State's Atty. Meg Gorecki, who faced disciplinary action before the state Supreme Court. Page wrote that Thomas wanted Gorecki disbarred, but then backed off in exchange for a political favor.
For Thomas, the accusations of misconduct--which he says would amount to a crime--were too serious to be ignored.
"A judge's job description is to be fair," he said on the witness stand. "And Bill Page said I can't be fair. He's taken away my integrity and my good name, and I'm here to get it back."