Constitutional Law

Plaintiff is Top Judge; Who Hears Appeal?

It’s a basic premise of constitutional law that litigants are entitled to a fair trial. Thus, when a judge is even peripherally involved in a lawsuit, he or she routinely steps aside and lets another jurist hear the case. But what happens when all the judges in the system are at least peripherally involved in the case?

Unlikely as it might seem, that is precisely the problem faced by the Illinois appellate court system right now, in an ongoing libel case, points out the Chicago Tribune in an editorial today. Brought by the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court against the Kane County Chronicle and former columnist Bill Page, the case is now under appeal following a $7 million judgment–since reduced to $4 million–in favor of Chief Justice Robert R.Thomas. The article, written by Page, had accused Thomas of improper judicial conduct.

But meanwhile the newspaper filed a lawsuit in federal court last week, contending that all seven justices of the state supreme court, three appellate judges and the trial judge are not impartial, because they are colleagues of Thomas, and hence cannot hear the case without violating the Chronicle’s 14th amendment right to a fair trial, reports the Chicago Tribune. By Friday, ironically, the federal judge initially assigned to the case had recused herself, saying that she formerly served on the state appellate court and hence might be perceived as biased, although she thought she could be fair.

While the eventual outcome is uncertain, two things are clear. First, some judge, somewhere, is now going to have to figure out who properly hears an appeal of a state-court case that directly involves, as a plaintiff, the state’s number one judge. Second, whatever happens, this case is unlikely to be finally decided anytime soon.

“Welcome to the libel case from hell,” says today’s Tribune editorial, “a collision of crucial rights that has no obvious outcome – other than a probable claim of injustice from either Thomas or the Chronicle.”

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