Madison and St. Clair counties' status drops in 'Hellhole' report; Illinois still dominates poll

Steve Gonzalez Dec. 13, 2006, 2:02am

Chief Judge Callis

Chief Civil Judge Stack

Madison and St. Clair County courts still remain on the nation's "Judicial Hellholes" list, but according to the fifth annual report issued by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), they are showing signs of improvement.

Madison County, which had been ranked the Number One "hellhole" just two years ago, continued to drop in the poll, earning the Number Five position in 2006. In 2005, Madison County ranked fourth.

West Virginia, South Florida, Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast Texas, Cook County, Ill., respectively, remain ahead of Madison County.

This year ATRA labels Madison County as "purgatory, on the road to recovery" and credits increased attention to lawsuit abuse by local judges, intervention by the Illinois Supreme Court, and enactment by the state legislature and Congress for bringing Madison County's on the road to recovery.

"The Madison County judiciary itself deserves much credit for the decline in class actions," the ATRA report states. "Since starting her new position in May 2006, Circuit Court Chief Judge Ann Callis has instituted rules to make it harder for out-of-state lawyers to fi le cases in Madison County and for plaintiffs to change judges readily, in hopes of fi nding a friendly one."

Callis declined to comment directly on the report, however, indicated she would continue to look for ways to improve the Third Circuit.

She said a judicial panel will be formed in January to study medical malpractice cases.

"I have already talked to several of the judges for ideas about the committee," Callis said. "I'll have a better idea in January."

ATRA also gave kudos to Madison County Chief Civil Judge Daniel Stack for tossing out consumer fraud claims when plaintiffs do not suffer financial losses.

"Still, some prominent local personal injury lawyers are in denial about the changes to the law and procedures, and can be expected to continue filing class actions in Madison and neighboring St. Clair County," the report states.

When asked if he disagreed with the "hellhole" label, Stack said, "You're damn right I disagree, 100 percent."

Stack also said the label was "childish, name calling and good advertisement."

"A hellhole is where people cannot get a fair hearing because the judge is extremely biased or crooked," he added.

Victor Schwartz, general counsel for ATRA, said the type of "extraordinary and blatant unfairness" that sparked the "hellhole" project has decreased across the board.

"This improvement is a shared result of shining the spotlight on litigation abuse and the wise corrections by both the judicial and legislative branches of state governments," Schwartz said.

St. Clair County also dropped a notch in this year's report, having gone from fifth place last year to a sixth place rank this year.

"St. Clair County, a Judicial Hellhole since 2004, continues to earn its reputation as a plaintiff-friendly area," the report states.

The number of "large" lawsuits, ones seeking more than $50,000 in damages, increased slightly between 2004 and 2005 in St. Clair County, the report states. But the number of recent filings are down compared to the number of cases filed between 2001 and 2003.

Still, the number of major civil cases filed in St. Clair County are about double the number of suits filed in Illinois courts with similar populations.

"Lawsuits are a cash cow for the county," the report states. "The St. Clair clerk's office took in over $3.6 million in filing fees in 2005, just a little less than the $4 million collected by its infamous neighbor, Madison County, and far more than the $2.5 million cost of operating the court, including all personnel salaries and administrative expenses.

"Only three substantially larger counties in Illinois took in more filing fees from lawyers than did St. Clair and Madison counties, respectively."

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said it was "very disturbing" and "embarrassing" that Illinois venues dominate ATRA's report.

"Not one of our neighboring states is included on the list," Murnane stated. "That means Michigan and Missouri and Wisconsin and Iowa and Indiana and Kentucky, as well as more distant neighbors Ohio and Minnesota, are viewed as having a less hostile judicial environment -- or a fairer judicial environment."

Murnane added that the "hostile" environment has negatively impacted doctors, hospitals and the business community and left insurers "under constant assault" in Illinois courts.

"While the Illinois Supreme Court has taken positive steps toward restoring an image of fairness and common sense to Illinois, there is still a long way to go and local jurisdictions, especially Cook and St. Clair Counties, are troubling," he said. "We are hopeful -- but cautiously -- that some of the initial reforms proposed and enacted in Madison County are both permanent and only the beginning."

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