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Court of Last Retort/McKeel Over 

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Court of Last Resort

What a lucky man! When Justice James Heiple of the Illinois Supreme Court wrote the unanimous opinion ordering the return of "baby Richard" to his biological parents, the occasion limited him to a discussion of the case. The petition for a rehearing gave Heiple the chance last week to let go at his enemies. Especially Bob Greene:

"The best interest of the child standard is not to be denigrated. It is real. However, it is not triggered until it has been validly determined that the child is available for adoption. And, a child is not available for adoption until the rights of his natural parents have been properly terminated. Any judge, lawyer, or guardian ad litem who has even the most cursory familiarity with adoption laws knows that. Justice [Dom] Rizzi, if he is to be taken at face value, does not know that. [Rizzi wrote the appellate court opinion; after Heiple overturned it he told Greene, "The supreme court's ruling makes me want to cry."]

"Columnist Bob Greene apparently does not care. 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 so doing, he has wrongfully 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. In support of his position, Greene has stirred up contempt against the Supreme Court as an institution, concluding one of his columns by referring to all of the Justices with the curse, 'Damn them all.'

"Greene's implicit objective is to secure justice for a child. With that ethical and moral imperative, of course, no one could disagree. Greene, however, elevated himself above the facts, above the law, and above the Supreme Court of Illinois. He arrogates to himself the right to decide the case.

"In support of his objective, Greene brings to bear the tools of the demagogue, namely, incomplete information, falsity, half-truths, character assassination and spurious argumentation. He has conducted a steady assault on my abilities as a judge, headlining one of his columns 'The Sloppiness of Justice Heiple.' Another was entitled 'Supreme Injustice for a Little Boy.' He has shown my picture in his columns with bylines reading, respectively, 'Justice Heiple: Ruling takes boy from home,' and 'James D. Heiple: No justice for a child.'

"Make no mistake about it. These are acts of journalistic terrorism. 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.

"Lest we forget the place from which he comes, let us remind ourselves that Greene is a journalist with a product to sell. He writes columns for a living. His income is dependent on writing and selling his columns to newspapers. He cannot secure either sales or earnings by writing on subjects that lack impact or drama. So, he must seek out subjects that are capable of generating wide public interest. An adoption case involving two sets of parents contesting for the custody of a three-year-old boy is a ready-made subject for this type of journalist. So far, so good.

"The trouble with Greene's treatment of the subject, however, is that his columns have been biased, false and misleading. They have also been destructive to the cause of justice both in this case and in the wider perspective. Part of Greene's fury may be attributable to the fact that he staked out his views on this case in a published column that appeared on August 22, 1993. Subsequently, on June 16, 1994, the Supreme Court had the audacity to base its decision on the law rather than on his newspaper column. So much for his self-professed moralizing.

"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. The Governor, in a crass political move, announced his attempt to intervene in the case. And the General Assembly, without meaningful debate or consideration, rushed into law a constitutionally infirm statute with the goal of changing the Supreme Court's decision.

"Both the Governor and the members of the General Assembly who supported this bill might be well advised to return to the classroom and take up Civics 101. The Governor, for his part, has no understanding of this case and no interest either public or private in its outcome. The legislature is not given the authority to decide private disputes between litigants. Neither does it sit as a super court to review unpopular decisions of the Supreme Court. We have three branches of government in this land. They are designated as the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Legislative adjudication of private disputes went by the wayside generations ago. Moreover, this case cannot be decided by public clamor generated by an irresponsible journalist."

The bench rests.

We don't fault Justice Heiple for disagreeing with Bob Greene. The editorial page of Greene's own paper disagrees with him. But when one person accuses another of "falsity, half-truths, character assassination and spurious argumentation" and doesn't get down to details, his only excuse is that he's falling off a bar stool at the time. We expect better from a presumably sober supreme court justice. Wondering if Heiple could flesh out his castigation we tried to reach him, but his office says he "speaks only through his opinions." Too bad for him.

Greene can wring bathos from rock, but he's done more than rant at the court.

(1) He accused Heiple's June 16 opinion of smugly misrepresenting the state's adoption laws as "neither complex nor difficult of application," when in the present instance, said Greene, they are "wrenchingly complex." On one side the biological parents--a father deceived when Richard was born into thinking the child was dead and a mother who deceived him, but with whom he's now reconciled. On the other the adoptive parents, who refused to relinquish their new son once the biological parents decided to make a claim.

(2) Greene accused Heiple of misrepresenting the litigation when he said the adoptive parents had themselves to blame for prolonging it through appeals. In truth, Greene noted, the biological parents appealed, and the adoptive parents prevailed at every turn until the supreme court ruled against them.

(3) He accused the supreme court of denying Richard's own court-appointed attorney the opportunity to speak for the child when the court heard the case last March in Springfield.

(4) He speculated that the justices hadn't even read transcripts of the original trial, only summaries.

Heiple found none of this worthy of a direct response. But Earmark A of the blowhard is the certainty that his own scorn is more than a match for his critic's thinking. The correct course for Heiple to have taken, a course manifestly obvious to everyone but himself, was to have ignored Greene. Since he didn't, he should have met him head-on. Heiple wound up looking preposterous.

The justice showed a little more aptitude for argument last week when the supreme court voted 4-3 to overturn the conviction of Rolando Cruz in the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico. Heiple's minority opinion was largely devoted to the facts of the case, though again he couldn't resist swinging at meddlers. He referred to "a carefully orchestrated and well-executed extrajudicial campaign [and] a curious melange of religious leaders, law school deans, former prosecutors, special interest bar associations and law professors [and] the lawyer and author Scott A. Turow, a person most prominently known for his works of fiction." (Turow happens to be the attorney for Cruz's codefendant, Alejandro Hernandez.) He dismissed the deans of the six of Illinois' nine law schools who filed a brief in Cruz's behalf as a "questionable cabal."

But this time Heiple did not single out a reporter. Earlier in the year Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a month's worth of columns championing Cruz and Hernandez. And when he spotted Bob Greene's column last month on "the sloppiness of Judge Heiple," Zorn reflected in a column of his own that he could have written on the subject himself.

Zorn (who, incidentally, is on record declining to share Greene's certainties about baby Richard) observed that it was Heiple (writing for a 4-3 majority that upheld Cruz's conviction in 1992) who declared, "The State's case consisted of physical evidence linking defendant with the crime."

Zorn went on, "D'oh! Not even the shifty, disingenuous, opportunistic prosecutors behind this sham prosecution have the nerve to claim that there is even a single shred of physical evidence against Rolando Cruz."

Heiple deserves credit for not showing complete disdain for his friendly critics at the Tribune. He must have taken to heart what Zorn said about there being no physical evidence. Because nowhere in last week's 33-page treatise arguing that Cruz's conviction should stand does he claim there is.

McKeel Over

"We operated under an extremely heavy load of debt in a deep newspaper recession and we came out strong," Sam McKeel boasted last week in the letter of resignation that caught his new bosses flat-footed. McKeel has been publisher of the Sun-Times since 1991, president of the Sun-Times Company since 1989, and he probably saved the paper.

But he saved it with a team of managers who ran the company in traditional top-down style. And the Hollinger newspaper chain, whose American Publishing Company subsidiary bought the Sun-Times Company last March, quickly decided it was top-heavy. Hollinger president David Radler and APC president Larry Perrotto don't care much about corporate structures, lines of authority, or even what McKeel would consider good manners. They came in to cut costs and boost circulation, and damn titles or protocol. Perhaps they didn't realize how intrusive McKeel found them.

McKeel's 67, and his retirement was expected in a few months anyway, perhaps after the current labor negotiations were wrapped up. But when the new owners eliminated the position of controller Bernadette Soens while McKeel was on vacation, he'd had enough. He quit so fast Radler and Perrotto didn't have time to line up a successor.

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