DOJ considers investigation of 3rd Circuit

Steve Stanek Oct. 7, 2004, 5:59am

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Department of Justice is "reviewing" a request for it to investigate Madison County's courts.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Justice Department spokesman Blaine Rethmeier said a request by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell and Georgia Congressman Charlie Norwood for a federal investigation of the Madison County court system is being considered.

Rehtmeier said the request is "not something we would comment on. I can say Congressman Norwood's request is still being vetted and reviewed."

He said he could not say when the department would decide how to respond. Any response would go to Norwood, who could choose to publicize it if he wishes.

The apparent favoritism toward plaintiffs' attorneys that Madison County courts have sometimes displayed in recent years could raise suspicions of "collusion" between certain plaintiffs' attorneys and judges, according to a law professor and specialist in legal ethics and tort reform.

"Apparently Madison County has never met a class action it would not certify," said Lester Brickman, a professor of law and fellow of the Academy of Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University in New York. "While it would be quite unusual for the Justice Department to proceed with an investigation under these circumstances, these are indeed unique circumstances. There appears to be a level of indulgence of plaintiffs' lawyers that is unique in the United States."

Bell served as Attorney General under President Jimmy Carter and also fifteen years as a federal judge. He made his call for a Justice Department investigation in April during an appearance at the Washington University Law School in St. Louis.

Norwood last month sent a 5 1/2-page letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft in which he also called for Ashcroft's Justice Department to investigate Madison County's court system. Within the past week Norwood three times addressed the House of Representatives by outlining reasons he believes the Justice Department should launch a probe.

He had three more House speeches on the topic planned but on Tuesday underwent a long-awaited lung transplant, said Jennie Derge, Norwood's legislative director.

"We have complaints (about Madison County) from constituents," Derge said. "Nobody wants to be named. There are some suspicions that we're trying to get our arms around. It seemed our only option was to contact John Ashcroft."

Norwood said on the House floor Sept. 29 that he wants an investigation of the Madison County courts because "they are affecting my constituents and the citizens of my State. Madam Speaker, I could not sit on these complaints from good Georgia companies any longer. I sent a letter to Attorney General Ashcroft on September 10 asking for a formal investigation of Madison County."

Brickman said Madison County courts often behave in questionable ways. For instance, earlier this year a judge cleared out his courtroom and kept secret all transcripts and exhibits in a dispute between local attorneys who were arguing over how to divvy up legal fees in a large class-action lawsuit they had handled. This kept anyone from knowing how much legal fees totaled or how they would be disbursed.

"This sounds like collusive behavior in protecting attorneys at the expense of the class," Brickman said. "It's an open question whether the First Amendment applies in Madison County."

James Copland, director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute in New York, said he would welcome a Justice Department investigation.

"If they were to investigate, I think that would do a lot to make jurisdictions around the country take pause," Copland said. "Madison County is not the only problem jurisdiction, but it is perennially rated as one of the worst judicial hellholes. If you look at the class action research we've done, Madison County has a wildly disproportionate share of the national class action bar. I think Madison County is a particularly bad problem."

Rethmeier also said the request for an investigation is not unprecedented.

"We receive requests, I wouldn't say routinely, but there have been past requests, especially with regard to similar types of behavior" as that cited in Norwood's complaint about the Madison County courts, he said.

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