Corporate tactics aim to curb justice

The Madison County Record Sep. 2, 2004, 12:44pm

Well, the Madison County Courthouse finally has drawn enough attention that it deserves it's own newspaper: The Madison County Record.

Being invited to be a columnist for a newspaper about the court system is like being the ten blind men asked to describe an elephant. The system has so many parts that that it is difficult to describe them as a whole. The best way to describe this or any other court is by dealing with the subparts. Through the course of this newspaper I hope to be able to describe what each of the different courts manages and handles on a day-to-day basis, whether it is family , criminal, civil, small claims, probate or any of the other areas that the complex judicial system is called upon to deal with.

Madison county civil courts have suddenly been thrust into the public eye in the last few years, having garnered an undeserved reputation as a "judicial hellhole." How and why this has occurred has escaped many who report the "news" in the St. Louis media.

Only one organization has called our court system a hellhole: the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA). ATRA is a big-business-financed front organization created by the fertile mind of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. For the last five years or so they have created lists of jurisdictions around the country where they say big business cannot get a fair trial and then have labelled these jurisdictions "hellholes."

Madison County is not alone in being so labeled; St.Louis, Los Angeles, Texas, Mississippi, West Virginia and many other places around the country also make the list. The publicity generated here is also generated in each of the other jurisdictions around the country where courts and juries are allowed to hear evidence and decide cases without restrictions from the politicians in state capitals.

Corporate America wants to restrict or limit the amount of justice that any individual can receive to a pre-determined amount, generally $250,000. One-size-fits-all justice. A broken finger could be just as valuable as a quadriplegic under their program.

It does make sense from their perspective. They want to make the cost of doing business predictable. Like Ford Motor did when they decided it was cheaper to pay lawsuits than recall 11 million Pintos and make a $10 repair. As a result of that desire for predictability, hundreds of people burned to death and thousands more suffered horrible burns and scarring, but were left to deal with the injuries. Finally the federal government intervened and passed legislation to protect the public form exploding gas tanks. Guess who lobbied against this regulation? The U. S. Chamber of Commerce. Surprised? The whole story can be found on Mother Jones magazine's website.

The American system of justice, with all of its wrinkles and warts, is still the best in the world. We let 12 citizens, with no stake in the outcome, decide what is fair and reasonable compensation for injuries wrongfully caused by the negligence or willful conduct of others. We don't use guns, knives, or suicide bombers to decide our disputes: we use law, evidence and citizens to resolve disputes.

The system is not perfect. Mistakes are made. However, my experience both as a judge and a lawyer teaches me that juries take their jobs very seriously. I trust the jury to do the right thing much more than I trust corporations or the government to do the right thing. I believe a jury's verdict much more than I trust the media's ability to report the facts. That is why the founding fathers preserved in the constitution the right to trial by jury for criminal and civil cases.

ATRA's attack on the court system in this county began when a local attorney by the name of Steven Tillery had the audacity to file a class action lawsuit against the big three in the tobacco industry: Phillip Morris, Brown and Williamson and RJR. This class action was filed just on behalf of the residents of the State of Illinois, not the whole nation. Three separate lawsuits claiming that these tobacco giants marketed and sold "light" cigarettes as a safe alternative to regular cigarettes when they knew that they were in fact neither "light" nor safe, but were in fact more carcinogenic than regular cigarettes.

According to the Center for Justice and Democracy in Washington D.C., the founders of the American Tort Reform Association are none other than Phillip Morris, Brown and Williamson, and RJR as well as other great corporate citizens like Halliburton, Johns Manville and Ford. Therefore, is it any great surprise that ATRA would come to the aid of its founders? But how? Attack the judges! Judges can't ethically defend themselves against public criticisms so they will be easy targets. No one understands the court systems anyway, other than lawyers, so they just demonized the lawyers while they were at it.

That is the program that has been used by ATRA around the country to prejudice juries and intimidate judges. Never mind that judges only decide issues that are presented to them and they are not the ones who bring the lawsuits. In Madison County, only one class action lawsuit has ever been tried--only one! Most class actions are dismissed by the court during class certification hearings. Only a handful have been resolved by settlements and all of those settlements have been done by agreement of all parties. BY AGREEMENT! Each case handled by the judges in Madison County is handled individually.

The blanket smear campaign being waged by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and all of their front-organizations such as ATRA, Illinois Civil Justice League, Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (ILAW) and Taxpayers Alliance are all astroturf-cookiecutter organizations created not only here, but everywhere across the nation where judges still believe in the right to trial by jury.

The good folks of Madison County need to pray that the intimidation tactics being instituted by these people do not undermine the courage and confidence of our judges, most of whom are diligent and hard working.

There is an old prayer that goes "there but for the grace of God go I." Someday you might be in need of justice and I hope justice will still be available in Madison County.

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