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Lawyers for the American Bar Association and its monthly magazine, the ABA Journal, are asking a federal judge to toss out a defamation suit filed by Philadelphia attorney Richard Sprague over an October 2000 article that referred to Sprague as “perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer in the state.” Although Sprague claims the reference falsely implied that he had “fixed” cases, the ABA insists that the description was clearly meant as a compliment and that Sprague is taking a few words out of context. “The use of the term ‘fixer’ 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, is not unusual,” attorneys David H. Marion and Joyce S. Meyers of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads wrote. In its answer to the suit, the ABA attached a list of more than 100 examples of prominent lawyers described as “fixers” in such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The National Law Journal. [ The National Law Journal is published by American Lawyer Media, which also publishes The Legal Intelligencer. American Lawyer Media is affiliated with law.com.] Among those described as “fixers” in the articles are Vernon Jordan, a Washington attorney and friend to former President Clinton; former O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro; and Washington lawyers Charles Ruff (described by friends as “Mr. Fixer”); the late Clark Clifford; Bruce Lindsey; and Lloyd Cutler. The ABA’s lawyers argue that since the “common journalistic usage” of the word “fixer” is to “describe, in laudatory terms, some of the most respected lawyers in the country,” no reasonable reader would interpret the word as accusing Sprague of unethical or criminal acts. “On the contrary, the word puts him in a category with some of the most distinguished lawyers of the 20th century,” the Montgomery McCracken lawyers argue. “A lawyer described as a “fixer’ is thus in very distinguished company.” Sprague sued over a four-page article in the October 2000 ABA Journal headlined “Cops in the Crossfire” in which reporter Terry Carter detailed the unusual court battles that ensued after Philadelphia police officer Christopher DiPasquale shot Donta Dawson, an unarmed black teenager, in the early morning hours of Oct. 19, 1998. When the district attorney’s office chose not to prosecute DiPasquale, the article said, a group of black leaders and elected officials filed a private criminal complaint and won a court order from a black judge that required DA Lynne Abraham to pursue murder charges. Sprague’s suit focuses on a single paragraph: “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. Within a week, they brought in their own big guns.” In its November issue, the ABA Journal printed a clarification that said: “Attorney Richard Sprague has objected to a reference made to him in ‘Cops in the Crossfire.’ … The Journal intended the reference to mean that Sprague is known for his problem-solving skills in politically nuanced cases. The Journal did not intend to convey that Sprague has engaged in any unethical or illegal activity. The Journal regrets any confusion that may have arisen from its reference to Sprague.” In his suit, Sprague and his lawyer, James E. Beasley of Philadelphia-based Beasley Casey & Erbstein, allege that the article falsely implied that Sprague has “fixed” cases and “used ‘power’ to influence and/or arrange their outcomes by improper and/or unlawful means.” The description, the suit says, “falsely ascribed to [Sprague] conduct and a character that would adversely affect his fitness to properly perform the practice of law.” But the ABA argues that Sprague’s suit is “based on three words taken out of context” and that it “relies on a forced, strained, and unreasonable interpretation of the words.” And even if the word “fixer” is defamatory, the ABA argues that its “loose, figurative language cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating an actual fact … that is objectively verifiable as true or false.” When the description of Sprague is read in the context of the entire article, the ABA argues that the term “fixer” was clearly being used as “a tribute to Mr. Sprague’s skills as an advocate. It was an accolade, not an insult.” The ABA says it agrees that the term “fixer” can have “negative connotations,” and that one of its dictionary definitions refers to the use of “corrupt methods” for securing political favors. But since the other definition of the term is “troubleshooter,” the ABA argues that the term, standing alone, “is neither laudatory nor pejorative without a context.” Looking to the paragraphs just before and after the description of Sprague, the ABA argues that the “thrust” of the article was that Sprague had a reputation as a “big gun” and that his presence motivated the other side to hire the most prominent lawyers it could find. The article said that after Sprague was hired, three of the most prominent African-American lawyers in Philadelphia were hired to oppose him — Andre Dennis, a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association; former federal prosecutor Luther Weaver; and “pre-eminent civil rights litigator” Charles Bowser. The ABA argues that a quote in the article from Stefan Presser of the ACLU proves its point. Presser was quoted as saying: “On the one hand, the DA has hired one of the most aggressive lawyers in the city, and, in response, the African-American community pulls together its most powerful triumvirate.” As a result, the ABA argues, “the only reasonable meaning of the words [lawyer-cum-fixer] in context is that Mr. Sprague is a highly effective and formidable adversary whose presence in the case required strong legal talent on the other side.”

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