Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery and his wife, Lise Rapaport, have indicated they'll sue the Philadelphia Inquirer for libel, apparently over stories about referral fees that Rapaport received from law firms while she was a full-time employee in her husband's office.

Inquirer investigative reporter Craig McCoy has reported that the FBI is investigating the fees, as high as $821,000 in one case. Though referral fees are legal in Pennsylvania, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille condemned the fees being taken by someone working in a judicial chamber.

McCaffery's attorney, Dion Rassias, hasn't returned my calls, but he's told the Inquirer that the fees are routine and proper.

McCaffery and his wife haven't yet detailed their allegations against the Inquirer, but they've filed a summons indicating that a libel and slander suit is coming.

None of the parties in the potential suit are talking, but the legal standoff evokes memories of an epic battle between the paper and another state Supreme Court justice in decades past.

The Long March: McDermott vs. the Inquirer

It was in 1982 that the Inquirer published a series called "Above the Law" which asserted that many justices on the state's highest court ignored the code of judicial ethics. Justice James T. McDermott sued, initiating a long and tortured legal fight. McDermott was represented by James Beasley, founder of the firm that is now representing McCaffery against the paper.

I spoke today with series writer Dan Biddle, now an editor at the Inquirer. He remembers what it was like to go up against a power like McDermott.

"I learned over the course of that that many a law firm in Philadelphia -- and this was expressed to our lawyers and to me in person -- would have been happy to take our case and defend the paper, except for who the plaintiff was. He was a member of the most powerful court in the state," Biddle told me.

There were actually two suits -- one over the series and another over a reprint with slightly altered text. In 1990 a jury found the stories didn't libel McDermott, but awarded him $6 million for the reprint. The award was overturned on appeal, and the case was eventually withdrawn in 2006, two years after Beasley had died and 14 years after the death of McDermott.

Biddle said he could always keep track of how old the case was because it was filed a month before his daughter, Ellery, was born. When it finally ended, she was almost 23.

"People were always very sympathetic about how hard it must have been for me and my family to be fighting that legal battle all those years," Biddle said. But he saw it differently.

He said he was lucky to have been supported by journalistic giants such as editors Gene Roberts, Gene Foreman, and Bill Marimow, publisher Edward Guthman, and First Amendment lawyers Sam Klein and Katherine Hatton.

"I felt like I got to see those guys up close, in a battle, and at their very finest," Biddle said.

I called the Beasley firm to ask if anyone could talk about the McDermott case with me, but didn't hear back.

The McCaffery case: Another epic battle?
At the moment there is no McCaffery case, just a legal notice indicating that a lawsuit is coming. A spokesman for McCaffery said he and Rapaport would have no comment until a complaint is filed, and the justice didn't say when that might be.

The legal notice was filed about a week before the first anniversary of the first story in McCoy's series, beating a deadline to file a libel case on that article. So the notice could indicate a suit is coming, or it could be a place holder to preserve that possibility.

The McCaffery notice names as defendants McCoy, the editors of the Inquirer and Daily News, editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, and the company that owns the papers and Philly.com

And there's one other interesting note: Also named as a defendant is Intertrust GCN, which holds the interest of Lewis Katz in the company that owns the papers. The partnership of George Norcross, Katz's rival in the bitter legal fight over ownership of the company, was not named as a defendant by McCaffery.

In an earlier hearing over the firing of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, publisher Bob Hall, an ally of Norcross, acknowledged that he'd questioned the importance of McCoy's story about Rapaport's referral fees.

A spokesman for the papers declined comment on McCaffery's filing. Wikinson, who authored a cartoon lampooning McCaffery and his wife said in a brief telephone interview that "the threat of a lawsuit is only going to shut down even more the limited commentary we have on the people in power in this city."