A libel action in suburban Chicago led to a $7 million award for Illinois Chief Justice Robert R. Thomas. A Kane County jury returned the verdict against the Kane County Chronicle and a former columnist on November 14, 2006. Justice Thomas, a former Chicago Bear and Notre Dame kicker, alleged that the columnist and the Chronicle defamed him by printing that he traded his vote in an attorney disciplinary case in exchange for a political favor to enable a candidate he favored to be elevated to the bench. Attorneys representing the defendants indicated that they will likely appeal, and that one of the issues they will raise will be that the jury should have been told that the columnist was a opinion columnist not a news reporter. The trial judge, Cook County Circuit Judge Donald J. O’Brien Jr., ruled
that there is no separate First Amendment privilege for statements of opinion and that a false assertion of fact can be libelous even though couched in terms of an opinion.
The basis of the ruling was a U.S. Supreme Court decision Milkovich v. Loraine Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990).
The future of the case on appeal is faced with many uncertainties. Several of Justice Thomas’ colleagues on the Illinois high court testified in the case, and presumably would recuse themselves if the case should reach them. The entire appellate panel with jurisdiction to hear the initial appeal, where Justice Thomas had once sat, had previously recused themselves from an earlier interlocutory appeal. Traditionally large libel verdicts involving public figures against newspapers are reversed on appeal. The question for the Illinois courts will be who has the impartiality and authority to hear the appeal of a judgment entered in favor of a sitting Chief Justice.