Uncrowding our courts

The Madison County Record Dec. 10, 2006, 2:17am

It won't stop Brad Lakin from pursuing class action lawsuits on behalf of dead plaintiffs, but Madison County taxpayers and justice seekers alike should stand encouraged by the Third Circuit's new mandatory arbitration program, announced last week by Chief Judge Ann Callis.

The concept makes good sense all around: before battening down the hatches and charging into the courtroom, lawsuit-filers need to first try to resolve their issue via arbitration, a cheaper and faster alternative to litigation itself.

If it doesn't work, the plaintiff's rights are preserved and they can move forward in court. But if it does, the dispute is resolved more quickly and at a lower cost for everyone involved-including we the taxpayer.

As Judge Dan Stack has pointed out, the time difference is staggering-- a matter of months versus years. Arbitration results in fewer jury trials (and need for jurors) and less crowded courts. Judges are less overwhelmed. More justice is served. What's not to like?

It makes you wonder-- why didn't we do this here in Edwardsville 20 years ago?

That's about when the Illinois Supreme Court started exploring mandatory arbitration as a means of de-burdening courts in the state's busiest jurisdictions. 15 pilot programs have followed, including one in St. Clair County, inaugurated in 1993. In every instance, they've reduced court proceedings and taken pressure off the broader system.

Still, if you file lawsuits not to resolve problems but, rather, to create leverage and make yourself a payday, the arrival of arbitration and all its benefits won't get you very jazzed. This program only covers cases involving $50,000 in damages and less-but it's a slippery slope.

The truth is, lawyers like Lakin make a living arguing against arbitration and in favor of litigation, mostly as a means to inflate some nickel-and-dime dispute into a giant class action that will get them paid.

For instance, when Sandra Ragan and then-Lakin lawyer Thomas Maag sued A T & T in 2002 for passing through a federal tax best counted in cents, the company immediately suggested arbitration. But Maag resisted-he wished to turn Ragan into the telecommunications version of Erin Brockovich-even trashing the arbitrators in court as he fought to drag out the case.

Last we checked-- four years later--that AT & T litigation over a few pennies was still pending.

Worse than an abuse of our justice system, cases like these crowd out the genuine disputes while wasting everyone's time. Madison County's new arbitration program is a solid first step, but it would be even better applied to our "jackpot justice" cases as well, not just the small ones.

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