Stack mending Madison County's reputation

The Madison County Record Jun. 5, 2005, 12:16pm

In the seasonal Midwest, summer always arrives with a hint of sunny optimism. Here at the Madison County Circuit Court, Judge Daniel Stack is driving ours.

Since taking over the court’s asbestos docket last fall, Stack has made good progress in changing the culture of courtroom extortion that made it famous. In the process, he’s bringing a little civil justice back to Edwardsville.

We remember the way it used to be. Plaintiffs sued, defendants settled, and lawyers made out with too much of the loot—- bragging all the way to the bank about how smart they were.

But legal acumen wasn’t carrying the day. Underlying plaintiff ‘success’ in Madison County asbestos cases was ‘The Threat,’ the cornerstone of a system through which—- for plaintiffs at least—- almost anything was possible.

We mean ‘The Threat’ of going to trial; of facing a fearsome Madison County jury; of getting lit up for a verdict with many zeros.

‘The Threat’ was intangible but powerful, striking the fear of God—‘er—of Judge Nicholas Byron-- into defendants. At its essence, ‘The Threat’ was Byron; Byron was ‘The Threat.’

Judge Byron, anti-corporate crusader and self-anointed protector of consumers the nation over, ran the asbestos docket before Stack.

Chummy plaintiff’s lawyers smiling nearby, Judge Byron liked to cajole asbestos defendants into settling their cases. He liked to suggest that avoiding trial was in their best interest. So long as Byron was in charge, such advice was difficult to ignore.

Many asbestos defendants strongly believed in their own innocence. But they also knew how Byron felt about them. And they had heard about the $250 million Madison County jury verdict against U.S. Steel in a 2003 asbestos case.

Byron presided over that trial. He couldn’t say he didn’t warn them.

What a difference a man makes.

With Judge Stack in the saddle, such advice is no longer given nor taken as far as we can tell. The Third Circuit is in the midst of its second asbestos trial in the past two months. This, after two years without one; after two years stuffed with thousands of Madison County asbestos settlements.

Now rumor has it more trials are on the way, perhaps driving ‘The Threat’ and Madison County’s asbestos reputation into the annals of hellhole history.

Too much optimism? Hey-- what else are summers for?

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