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In their latest strategy for defeating a libel lawsuit, lawyers for the American Bar Association and its monthly magazine, the ABA Journal, are asking a federal judge to declare that attorney Richard Sprague is a public figure as a result of a career chock-full of high profile cases. “Mr. Sprague’s conscious decision to accept high-profile engagements and to lead a public life has turned him into a public figure in the Philadelphia area, as well as the local and national legal communities,” attorneys David H. Marion, Joyce S. Meyers, Michael A. Twersky and Jeanette Melendez Bead of Philadelphia-based Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads wrote. If the ABA succeeds, Sprague will have a significantly heavier burden in his suit against the magazine because he would have to prove his case under an “actual malice” standard. Sprague won the first round in the litigation when U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvaniaruled that readers of the magazine could have attached defamatory meaning to the magazine’s labeling Sprague a “fixer.” The ABA had urged Yohn to dismiss the suit, arguing that the description of Sprague in an October 2000 article as “perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer in the state” was clearly intended as a compliment. In its motion to dismiss, the ABA argued that “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.” But Yohn sided with Sprague and found that the term “fixer” also has a negative meaning that includes the criminal act of “fixing” cases. Yohn found that the ABA Journal‘s use of the term was not absolutely clear — even when read in context. “Because of this ambiguity in the context of the article, I must find that readers of ABA Journal could possibly have understood the term ‘fixer’ to be defamatory,” Yohn wrote. Sprague sued over a four-page article headlined “Cops in the Crossfire” that detailed the unusual court battles that ensued after Philadelphia police officer Christopher DiPasquale shot Donta Dawson, an unarmed black teen-ager 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 District Attorney 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.” Now the ABA is seeking a ruling that Sprague fits at least one of the three special categories of plaintiffs in libel cases — public official, general purpose public figure or limited purpose public figure — all of which carry the heavier actual malice standard. The Montgomery McCracken team filed a hefty brief along with a two-volume appendix that includes dozens of articles about Sprague and the cases he has handled. They argue that Sprague was a public official in the Donta Dawson case because he was hired by Abraham as a temporary deputy district attorney to handle the appeals of rulings that required Abraham’s office to pursue murder charges against officer DiPasquale. And since Sprague sought out the appointment and recognized that the Dawson case was a major public controversy, he also meets the definition of a limited purpose public figure, they argue. “Sprague voluntarily thrust himself to the forefront of this controversy by volunteering his services to handle the appeal on behalf of the District Attorney’s office. Moreover, he took this step because he believed that the controversy was important and that his involvement could help to bring about a favorable outcome. Accordingly, he meets the classic definition of a limited purpose public figure,” they wrote. But while those arguments focus on Sprague’s role in the case that was the subject of the ABA Journal article, the defense lawyers also argue that due to Sprague’s notoriety and prominence over the past few decades, he also meets the test for a general purpose public figure. “Mr. Sprague has spent the past 30 years in the public spotlight, with his name appearing in local and national newspaper and magazine articles as a result of: (1) his handling of high profile cases of public importance; (2) his representation of high profile clients; and (3) his role as a litigant in high profile cases,” they wrote. One of Sprague’s most famous cases was his appointment as special prosecutor to investigate the 1969 murder of Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, a United Mine Workers Union member and reformer, who was murdered along with his wife and daughter in Washington County, Pa. In 1974, Sprague obtained a guilty verdict against UMW president W.A. “Tony” Boyle for ordering the assassination of his rival, Yablonski. And when Boyle won a new trial, Sprague won a second conviction in 1978. In 1976, Sprague was appointed chief counsel to the House Select Committee investigating the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. As the ABA’s lawyers describe it, “Sprague’s tenure as Chief Counsel became quite controversial, in part because of a number of disagreements with the Committee’s chairman Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez. These disputes were widely reported in the press.” In 1997, Sprague also joined the prosecution team in defending the murder conviction of Lisa Michelle Lambert soon after a federal judge declared her “actually innocent” and set her free. Over the years, Sprague’s client list has included numerous public officials and famous people in cases that were closely watched by the press, the ABA argues. In their brief, the defense lawyers note that Sprague has represented: � Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Fumo “in a number of highly public matters,” including telecommunications issues and libel actions brought against Transportation Workers Union President Steve Brookens and journalist Howard Altman; � Philadelphia City Council President Anna C. Verna over campaign finance irregularity; � Philadelphia mayoral candidate Marty Weinberg in a dispute over residency; � Bucks County District Attorney Alan M. Rubenstein in a dispute with the Bucks County Commissioners; � John du Pont in his murder case; � Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell over termination of her aide Michael Williams; � Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen in charges of ethical violations; and � Julie Alexander King in her divorce from CNN talk show host Larry King. In cases brought on his own behalf, the ABA argues that Sprague has made headlines and earned name recognition. Perhaps the best known case is Sprague’s libel suit against The Philadelphia Inquirer in which he won a then-record $34 million verdict as a result of a series of 1973 articles that suggested he took part in a cover-up to prevent a friend’s son from being charged in a man’s death. The suit, which resulted in two trials, lasted 23 years and was eventually settled on confidential terms. As the ABA’s lawyers describe it, “this case received extensive local and national media coverage, thus helping to keep Mr. Sprague in the public spotlight for nearly 23 years.” And the coverage of the Inquirer libel suit was not only local, they argue, since reports of the case can also be found in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, as well as papers in Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. In 1997, Sprague sued the Pennsylvania Bar Association to obtain documents used by the Pennsylvania Judicial Evaluation Commission to rate Pennsylvania judicial candidates. Once again, the ABA contends, the issue — and Sprague’s involvement in it — attracted significant media attention. Other prominent lawyers — including former U.S. Attorney Michael M. Baylson and former Chester County District Attorney William Lamb — describe Sprague as a “legend,” and Philadelphia Magazine recently named him one of the city’s top lawyers, noting that in its survey, Sprague was the only lawyer to score among the best in six different categories, the brief says. “Sprague is one of the most well-known figures in Philadelphia, both within the legal community and among the general public, and is one of the most famous lawyers in America. For the past three decades Mr. Sprague’s name has appeared in hundreds of articles, stories and news reports in the local and national press. Moreover, within just the past few years he has been the subject of entire articles,” the brief says. “Sprague’s fame has only grown in recent years. He no longer needs high profile clients or cases to attract media attention. Mr. Sprague, himself, is news. The very fact that he becomes involved in an existing legal matter has been the subject of news reports. Indeed, Mr. Sprague’s name alone, without further explanation, is used in headlines because people simply know him,” the brief says.

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