Give the courts a break

The Madison County Record Dec. 25, 2004, 2:53am

To the Editor:

As a former resident of Madison County for 35 years, I have had occasion to cover our courts for a local newspaper.

Regarding the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's asbestos series, I found Paul Hampel's account informative.

But, I believe the newspaper's editorial of Sept. 26 was unfair to the attorneys, and especially the judges, in Madison County, Ill.

Being somewhat familiar with the legal system there, I believe the judicial election system works well and that the judges themselves are among the most ethical people I have met, their integrity being beyond reproach.

First, it seems to me the Post-Dispatch's logic is flawed.

Hampel illustrated that trial lawyers making heavy contributions in judicial elections "have succeeded in tilting the scales of
justice in their favor."

The series did show that lawyers make contributions to the judges' re-election campaigns, but to say those contributions sway judicial
decisions is a big leap and a slap at the judges.

It is also illogical.

If you are a plaintiff lawyer representing Average Joe who has been
wronged by a huge corporation with deep pockets, would you want to support a judge who could be "bought," or even influenced by financial contributions?

No, because the corporations and their insurance companies have far more financial resources than you have (and you can bet they'd make big judicial campaign contributions if they thought it would make the asbestos cases go

If I am a plaintiff lawyer, it is in my interest (and my client's) to
support judges whose ethics are beyond reproach, who can't be influenced by personal, financial or political gain. Otherwise, the corporations and insurance companies would throw vast sums at the judges.

The insurance companies know the judges in Madison County can't be influenced by donations, so instead they send their money to lobbyists and lawmakers in Washington who can be persuaded, by substantial donations, to support so-called tort reform legislation limiting the amount of money a wronged person can receive in a decision by a jury of his peers.

Second, the Post suggests "Illinois ... stop electing judges and ... adopt something like Missouri's nonpartisan court plan.

"Granted, Missouri's system does not eliminate partisanship entirely, but judges in Missouri are not beholden to big contributors the way Illinois judges are to trial-lawyer donors."

Nor are judges in Missouri beholden to the public whose rights and
interests they are sworn to uphold. The great thing about the elected
judicial system is accountability to the voters.

If the judges are corrupt or being unduly influenced by financial or other considerations, or show just plain poor judgment, we can vote against retention.

I believe the editorial board of the Post-Dispatch has lost sight of the big picture and has become blinded by the minutia.

For example: "The Supreme Court should throw out the ridiculous 'Lipke rule,' which often prevents companies from showing that a person's asbestos exposure was another firm's fault."

It is undisputed that hundreds of corporations knew their products were dangerous, even deadly, but did not disclose the fact or take the products off the market.

They were interested in profit over doing what is right, and
as a result, millions of people have exposure -- possibly any child who attended a public school in the past 50 years -- and many will die painful deaths.

The medical facts also show that it takes exposure to only one fiber
to contract the deadly disease. Would the Post-Dispatch require the plaintiff to prove which specific product caused the disease in each case?

I can see us now, waiting until the plaintiff is dead so we can take a sample of his lung tissue to eliminate some defendants and determine which others are at fault.

Corporations are at fault by their unethical and illegal actions.

The editorial fails to emphasize that juries -- not judges -- are the ones who ultimately determine the judgments, but only if the defendants are willing to roll the dice and go to a trial on the merits of their case. The vast majority of the cases are settled only because the corporations and their insurance companies know they run a greater exposure risk if the facts are laid out for a jury to decide.

The Post-Dispatch makes it sound as if the verdict Randall Bono of the SimmonsCooper firm obtained on behalf of Roby Whittington against U.S. Steel was a travesty of justice.

Fact is, Whittington ended up settling for less than a fifth of what a jury determined he deserved. He died as a result of U.S. Steel's greed, and if not for the judicial system in Madison County, his heirs would probably still be waiting for their day in court.

Finally, I want to say something about the fine people on the bench in Madison County.

As you know, the Illinois State Bar Association conducts an anonymous
survey of all lawyers who belong to it, seeking opinions on each specific judge's performance and sends the results of the survey to newspapers to use as they see fit.

Questions about each judge include whether he or she is partial to any group or interest; is knowledgeable in the law; and is
conscientious in the performance of duties.

The judges are all rated and have received approval, even as to impartiality. This is an anonymous survey of all attorneys -- not just the plaintiffs in big tort or personal injury cases.

The local judges receive support because they are fair. The Post-Dispatch had this information at its disposal, but chose not to use it because it didn't support the position the editorial board decided to take.

Instead, we get quotes from one or two anonymous attorneys, identified only as defense attorneys, implying that plaintiffs may stand a better chance in Madison County than in some other places.

The quality of Madison County judges is in fact very high.

It is too bad that those who do not know those judges read the Post-Dispatch series and editorial and formed an opinion from such a one-sided source.

Bob Slate
Decatur, Ala.

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