Class actions should be court's last resort

The Madison County Record Jan. 16, 2005, 10:39am

If they might take a break from our goofy governor and his made for Star magazine family follies, Illinois’ political media monolith would do well to show up for next week’s state Supreme Court Rules Committee hearing in Chicago.

Arcane judicial rules don’t make for great TV. But in this case they couldn’t be more newsworthy.

The committee’s top topic will be class action lawsuits. They're the ones that made Madison and St. Clair Counties famous.

A group of our state’s largest job providers— including Allstate, Bank One, Baxter, State Farm, and Walgreen Co.— have joined together to plead for a change in the way Illinois judges handle class actions.

Modeled after federal law, their proposal— called Rule 225-- would require a judge to conclude that a class action lawsuit is the best method for resolving a dispute before allowing it.

That is— class action lawsuits must be an option of last resort for judges, not first. Or there's no need for a legal bazooka when a slap on the wrist will do.

In Rule 225’s crosshairs are renegade courtrooms like that of Third Circuit Court Judge Nicholas Byron, who certifies class actions in his sleep. Thanks to him, Madison County sees more such lawsuits than any other courthouse in America.

Byron and judges like him are accountable for Illinois' climb in class action lawsuits because they consistently dis defendants, giving plaintiff's lawyers an unfair advantage.

But courts and judges aside, it is really the anatomy of most class action cases that’s so disturbed so much of the general public.

Enterprising lawyers dream up a “wrong” that gives them an angle to sue a deep-pocketed company, recruiting a typically down-on-their-luck “victim” to serve as a “named plaintiff” and represent the “class.”

Rather than risk getting rung up by a jury, the company cuts its losses and settles. Then the named plaintiff gets thousands, the class gets coupons, and the rest of us get “justice.”

Oh—- and the plaintiff’s lawyers get millions.

So it’s no newsflash that they’ll be the ones opposing Rule 225 at next week’s meeting. The pro-plaintiff Illinois Bar Association says it likes the status quo.

Others keep fighting-- for their clients and professional selves.

“Doing nothing about that (class action) problem is not a viable option,” argue Chicago attorneys Michael Pope and Steven Pflaum of McDermott Will & Emery, who helped draft Rule 225. “The (class action) problem is sufficiently pervasive that it threatens to taint the national reputation of Illinois courts."

And for anyone thinking of employing people in this state, reputation matters. Alot.

Illinois can overcome the damage done by a self-absorbed but fleeting elected official. But our judicial system is quite another story.

Rule 225 is a strong first step on the right path. We urge its support.

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