Ill. Judge Trims $3 Million from Chief Justice’s Defamation Verdict

April 3, 2007

A judge slashed $3 million from the damages a suburban Chicago newspaper must pay the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in a defamation case.

In November, a jury ordered the Kane County Chronicle and a former columnist to pay $7 million to Chief Justice Robert Thomas after he sued over a series of columns he alleged were untrue and damaged his reputation and career.

But Cook County Circuit Judge Donald O’Brien, who heard Thomas’ lawsuit against the paper, said that the verdict “falls outside the range of fair and reasonable compensation (and) was the result of passion and prejudice.”

O’Brien also dismissed claims by the newspaper that he had made errors in the case, the Chicago Tribune reported in a story posted on its Web site.

The lawsuit filed by Thomas, a former Chicago Bears kicker, sought $7.7 million in damages after former columnist Bill Page wrote in 2003 that Thomas softened his position in a disciplinary hearing for former Kane County State’s Attorney Meg Gorecki after her supporters backed a judicial candidate he favored.

Thomas testified during the trial that Page’s columns “went completely over the line and accused me of a crime.”

The defense had argued that a large award against the paper would curtail First Amendment freedoms. A lawyer for the newspaper said Friday that even with the reduction, the verdict is too high.

“Essentially, the chief justice is still taking advantage of the system he dominates by trying to grab a personal windfall just because an opinion column in a newspaper speculated about politics on the bench,” said attorney Bruce Sanford.

Thomas’ attorney, Joe Power, said he has not yet decided whether to appeal the award reduction.

“When we file for a jury trial, we like the jury to decide on damages and the amount of damages,” he said. “That may be for another court to decide.”

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