Post-Trial Playoffs Begin In Libel Trial

Post-trial motions will be filed in the next few weeks in Thomas v. Page, the Illinois libel case decided yesterday to the tune of $7 million for former Chicago Bear place-kicker and current chief justice of the Illinois State Supreme Court.

A jury decided, in a bit under 8 hours, that Bill Page, a former writer for the Kane County Chronicle, defamed Judge Page in columns that relied upon confidential sources.

“From what I understand from talking with the jurors afterwards was that they found there was a ‘reckless disregard’ because the paper did not adequately investigate the confidential sources” used by Mr. Page in his columns about Justice Thomas, said a lawyer for Mr. Page, Steven Rosenfeld, of Mandell Menkes LLC.

“Reckless disregard” is a standard from New York Times v. Sullivan, 1964. The jury had to agree, as the Supreme Court wrote in that opinion, that Mr. Page had acted “with ‘actual malice’–that is, with knowledge that [his statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

“I think that is an extraordinary finding with regard to reckless disregard,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.

A lawyer for Judge Thomas, Joseph A. Power, Jr., of Power Rogers and Smith, PC, said that opposing counsel approached him for settlement prior to the verdict. “They offered cost of defense,” he said. The offer was not accepted.

Among the trial’s oddities is having as plaintiff the state’s top judge. The case was originally filed in the second district–that district, whose seat is Elgin, recused itself, as Justice Thomas both came from that district and has supervisory authority over it.

Mr. Power would have prefered that the case be conducted in Chicago, in the first district. Instead, “we were in a conservative Republican jurisdiction not known for returning awards for plaintiffs,” Mr. Power said. Lawyers for the defense “were happy to be out there, believe me,” he said.

Lawyers for Mr. Page and his former employer have 30 days to file post-trial motions, such as asking to vacate the decision, or to move for a new trial. Post-trial motions are a normal prelude to an appeal. Mr. Rosenfeld indicated that a motion would be filed in “a couple weeks.” After the judge rules on post-trial motions, the legal team then has 30 days to file an appeal.

“They can do whatever they wish,” said Mr. Power. “They’re entitled if they want to–but they’ll have to pay 9 percent interest while it’s out on appeal.”

— Choire Sicha