Clash Of a Judge and a Small Paper Underlines the Tangled History of Defamation

Bleak House

It was like a scene out of ''Bleak House,'' in which Dickens chronicled an interminable court case. In 1983, a Supreme Court justice in Pennsylvania sued The Philadelphia Inquirer for defamation. The case was finally dismissed this summer -- a full 23 years after it began.

Now another case of a judge suing a newspaper for defamation has started moving up the legal chain. Three years ago, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in Illinois sued The Kane County Chronicle, a 14,000-circulation daily serving an area about one hour west of Chicago.

Last week, the justice won the first round, with a jury finding that a former Chronicle columnist, Bill Page, had written falsely and acted with malice in accusing the justice of trading a vote for a political favor. The jury awarded the justice $7 million. The Chronicle said it would appeal.

Joseph A. Power Jr., who represented the chief justice, Robert R. Thomas, said the finding of actual malice would weed out ''renegade'' journalists and might make newspapers more responsible. If the paper had printed a retraction, he said, Justice Thomas would not have brought the suit. ''The First Amendment does not protect lies and liars,'' he said.

Others said that lawsuits brought by judges could have a corrosive effect on journalism and the legal system.

''It's obviously troubling when a sitting state Supreme Court justice can use his own court to secure a multimillion-dollar judgment against a local paper,'' said Leib Dodell, president and chief executive of Media/Professional Insurance, which insures several newspapers, including The Chronicle. ''To be sure, there's a chilling effect on small papers and reporting on local political matters.''

Steven P. Mandell, part of the defense team, said those who testified against The Chronicle were beholden to Justice Thomas, who oversees the state's entire legal system, and those who declined to testify for the defense were afraid of retaliation.

Those are some strong and provocative allegations. Details here from the New York Times via My earlier post about the verdict against the judge is here.