Georgia congressman calls for Madison County inquiry

Steve Stanek Sep. 16, 2004, 9:00am

Madison County has drawn plenty of criticism for its willingness to accept lawsuits that have been rejected in other jurisdictions. Last week that criticism took a step beyond the rhetorical when a Georgia congressman asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Madison County’s legal system.

Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) last week asked U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft for a Justice Department probe of the Madison County court system. Duke Hipp, Norwood's press secretary, said "more than one" constituent of Norwood's has been successfully sued in Madison County after other courts dismissed the suits.

"Charlie Norwood got involved because people in his district have had experiences not unlike what is cited in the letter," Hipp said. "We've had folks in the district who have encountered these problems personally."

In the letter to Ashcroft, dated Sept. 10, 2004, Norwood writes that the Madison County court system "regularly applies the civil laws in an unfair manner and violates the fundamental constitutional rights of defendants, particularly those that hail from other states, including my own."

The 5 1/2-page letter gives 13 examples of what Norwood says are actions that violate the U.S Constitution, including the First Amendment, the right to due process and the interstate commerce clause.

Madison County Chief Judge Edward C. Ferguson did not return calls for comment, but former Madison County judge and plaintiff's attorney Randall Bono said the request of Congressman Charlie Norwood is based on "dirty, rotten, deceitful lies" that amount to "bought and paid for political demagoguery at its worst.”

“If they want an investigation, I say bring it on,” said Bono. “I would like an investigation as to jury tampering to go with it. They're trying to influence the jury panel with lies and deceit."

Bono also said of Norwood: "This man is not smart enough to have written that letter. This was written by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's regurgitating the same garbage they have been regurgitating the last two years. Why would a Republican from Georgia, who has never been to Illinois, who has never talked to anyone from Madison County, have an interest?"

Norwood's letter implicitly asks a similar question of Madison County judges.

Bono handled some of the cases and was involved in a few of the incidents that Norwood cite as examples of abuse, the asbestos case in which U.S. Steel was ordered to pay an Indiana man was awarded $250 million.

Norwood's letter will work its way to Ashcroft, after first going through the Justice Department's office of congressional affairs, said department spokesman Blaine Rethmeier.

"They'll look at the issues--he's alleging civil rights abuses--then they will send it to the civil rights division," Rethmeier said. Attorneys there will review the letter, possibly send it to other divisions for review, and then hand a recommendation to Ashcroft for his approval and signature.

The department's response will not be made public. It will go to Norwood, who could then publish it if he wishes, Rethmeier said. He couldn’t say how long the department might take to notify Norwood of its decision.

"I can say that we take any sort of congressional letter of this nature very seriously," Rethmeier said.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose Congressional district includes Madison County, is a good friend of Norwood; he saw a copy of the letter before it went to Ashcroft. A former county treasurer, Shimkus says he still has friends at the courthouse but supports tort reform because he believes the county’s legal climate is doing more harm than good.

"No one likes to attack courts, because we hope they're fair and unbiased, but there are many of us who feel the pendulum has swung too far,” Shimkus said. “It really is harmful to the community. It creates higher costs to do business, it hurts struggling manufacturing industries. Now we are losing our access to healthcare."

Bono advised that it would be wise to "follow the money" in assessing Norwood's letter. He said Norwood is friends with former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, who in April participated in a panel discussion at Washington University Law School in St. Louis and called for a federal investigation of the Madison County courts. Bono also participated in that panel discussion and spoke against Bell, 86, who served in the Carter administration.

Bono said Bell’s firm, King & Spalding, represents tobacco companies and drug makers who are being sued over their products, and for that reason Bell and King & Spalding have a financial interest in trying to limit lawsuits.

Shimkus retorted that Bono has "made his millions suing companies."

"Norwood is well respected by both sides of the aisle," Shimkus said, "and was involved in patient's bill of rights issues. He has shown autonomy. He is not just lockstep with Republicans."

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a group that advocates tort reform, is happy that Norwood has formally asked for a Justice Department investigation.

"The points that were expressed in Norwood's letter are certainly problems that we've been talking about and others been talking about,” said Murnane. “When you add them all up an investigation would be in order."

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