Is it libel to call a lawyer a fixer? has an interesting article today from Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer,

Attorney Clears Hurdle in Defamation Action Against ABA. It reports that Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague “has cleared another significant hurdle in his defamation lawsuit against the American Bar Association and its monthly magazine, the ABA Journal, now that a federal judge has ruled that a jury could conclude the magazine acted with actual malice when it described Sprague as a ‘fixer.'” The ABA’s lawyers had argued that the term was intended as a compliment, used to describe “a prominent, highly successful lawyer, widely known and sought after for his effectiveness as a problem-solver and trouble-shooter in connection with politically sensitive issues and cases.” But Sprague contended the term also suggested the criminal act of fixing cases.

(The opinion has not yet been published on the district court’s Web site, but should become available here. An earlier ruling on defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings is available here.

Coincidentally, today the Philadelphia Daily News reported another libel suit by Sprague, this one against Philadelphia radio host Howard Eskin and Infinity Broadcasting. A Philadelphia columnist in 1998 called Sprague “the Michael Jordan of 800-pound libel-suing attorneys.” In the libel field, he is perhaps best known as the plaintiff who in 1990 won the then-largest libel verdict ever, $34 million, against The Philadelphia Inquirer, over a story that criticized his work as an assistant district attorney.

So what’s the fuss all about. It comes down to this passage from an October 2000 ABA Journal article written by Terry Carter about the murder prosecution of a Philadelphia policeman for the shooting of a Black man: “The political stakes were raised in May when the DA accepted outside help in the case from her former boss, Richard Sprague, perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer in the state. The appearance of the storied Dick Sprague set off alarms in the black precincts.”

In the interest of disclosure, let me say that I’ve known writer and co-defendant Terry Carter personally and professionally for many years and consider him a top-notch journalist. But I find it difficult to see how anyone could interpret this as anything other than a compliment to Sprague. The court case is far from over. No doubt, the controversy will continue as well.