By: Mark Fitzgerald
Illinois Supreme Court justice intersperses ruling
on a controversial adoption with criticism of
Chicago Tribune columnist who he accuses of writing
false and misleading accounts of the case sp.
IN A LEGAL opinion extraordinary for its vituperative language, the Illinois Supreme Court interspersed its ruling on a controversial adoption case with accusations that syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene was guilty of “journalistic terrorism.”
The majority opinion, written by Justice James Heiple, accused Greene of using the adoption dispute as fodder to build readership.
In addition to attacking Greene, Heiple also lashed out at the governor of Illinois, Jim Edgar, and a highly respected Illinois appellate judge, Dom Rizzi, for their actions in the highly emotional issue of who should have custody of a 3-year-old known as “Baby Richard.”
“Columnist Bob Greene apparently does not care,” Heiple wrote in the July 12 opinion. “Rather, columnist Greene has used this unfortunate controversy to stimulate readership and generate a series of syndicated newspaper columns in the Chicago Tribune and other papers that are both false and misleading.
“In doing so, he has wrongly cried ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, and has needlessly alarmed other adoptive parents into ill-founded concerns that their own adoption proceedings may be in jeopardy . . . .
“Make no mistake about it. These are acts of journalistic terrorism,” Heiple wrote.
Since May 1993, Greene has written about the emotionally charged case of Richard, who was given up for adoption at birth by his mother without the consent of his biological father.
The biological father, Otakar Kirchner, contends he was misled into believing the boy died at birth, and so he did not challenge the adoption for more than two months.
Kirchner reconciled with the biological mother soon after the birth and the couple is now married. Lower courts consistently ruled that Richard should stay with the only parents he has ever known.
In a ruling on the case last year, appellate Judge Dom Rizzi declared that that “best interest of the child” should be the determining consideration in Illinois.
But in their own controversial ruling in June, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court said the biological father had not lost his right to block the adoption ? and that Richard must be returned to the biological parents.
And in the July 12 opinion rejecting a rehearing in the case, Heiple took a shot at Rizzi’s “best interest” standard, saying the judge “grossly misstated the law.”
In his columns, Greene has consistently maintained the little boy should remain with his adoptive parents. And he has pointed out several errors in Heiple’s first opinion on the case.
In an interview, Greene said Heiple repeated those factual errors in his second opinion. And Greene noted that Heiple does not specify what is “false and misleading” in the columns.
The most recent opinion “just makes me feel like crying for this little boy,” Greene said.
“It just seems to me that the criticism [Heiple] is taking on this, he is taking out on this little boy,” he added.
Indeed, Heiple’s opinion indicates the judge takes the criticism personally.
“These columns are designed to discredit me as a judge and the Supreme Court as a dispenser of justice by stirring up disrespect and hatred among the general population,” Heiple wrote.
“That Greene has succeeded to a limited degree cannot be denied. I have, indeed, received several pieces of hate mail with such epithets as idiot, jerk, etc.,” Heiple added.
The Supreme Court deserves the heat, Greene says.
“I really hope if they, the seven justices, are so determined to send this boy to a home he has never known, that on the day he is handed over . . . that those seven justices are there to look that boy in the face and tell him why they are doing this,” Greene said.
At this point, Greene says he cannot even recall how he got involved in the Baby Richard case. The adoptive parents, who have said little publicly about the case during the two-year ordeal, did not want any publicity, the columnist said.
But the issue has clearly become an emotional one for Greene as well.
After the Supreme Court ruling ordering the boy taken from the adoptive parents, Greene wrote a column that ended with this reference to the justices: “Damn them all.”
“I feel more strongly than ever about that now,” Greene said in an interview. “I would hope one of the things we do in this business is that when someone has no voice ? we give them a voice,” he said.
Justice Heiple’s harsh opinion drew an equally harsh response from Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar who called it “a dark day for justice and human decency in Illinois. The highest court in this state has committed a travesty.”
Using a Supreme Court opinion to personally attack a journalist is “unprecedented,” said David Protess, professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“To include that kind of language in a published Supreme Court opinion is unprecedented,” Protess said. “I’ve never seen . . . dicta that attacks a journalist and his news organization by name in the kind of vitriolic terms he uses.
“Greene has had a long career of taking on causes and that is one of the most noble roles a journalist or columnist can do,” Protess added. “To somehow suggest that Greene or the Chicago Tribune has a self-interest here is just wrong-headed.”
Northwestern Law School professor Steven Lubet was a little more sympathetic to Heiple, saying the justice appeared “exasperated” in the opinion.
“Judge Heiple ? in more overheated language than usual ? is explaining why he is not going to take into consideration the governor’s or the newspaper’s interests in this case,” Lubet said.
Greene himself, though, said the opinion is a good indication of how Illinois’ Supreme Court has failed to protect Richard.
“I just wish everybody in the country could read this opinion, so they could see what kind of judge is deciding this case,” he said. “To think this was an official Supreme Court decision. I just feel terrible for that little boy.”
?( I just wish everybody in the country could read this opinion, so they could read this opinion, so they could see what kind of judge is deciding this case. To think this was an official Supreme Court decision. I just feel terrible for that little boy.”) [ Caption]
?( Bob Greene, Chicago Tribune and syndicated columnist) [Photo ID]