Civil justice advocate Charlie Norwood dies

Ann Knef Feb. 15, 2007, 3:16am

Rep. Charlie Norwood

Rep. Charles Norwood, Jr., a Republican congressman from Georgia who in 2004 asked the U.S. Attorney General to investigate Madison County's judicial system, died Tuesday after battling cancer and lung disease. The seven-term congressman was 65.

Norwood had urged former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to examine the "dramatic tilt of justice in Madison County," which had attracted nationwide attention.

In a letter dated Sept. 10, 2004, Norwood called Madison County a "hostile litigation environment," citing, among other things, whopping verdicts -- a $250 million judgment against U.S. Steel awarded to an Indiana plaintiff and the $10.1 billion bench verdict against Philip Morris.

Norwood also detailed instances where the court "violated or chilled the exercise of First Amendment rights held by members of the media, civil defendants, and advocates for reform."

He pointed to the treatment former U.S. Attorney Griffin Bell received after labeling Madison County a "stain on our system" and calling for a federal investigation.

Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron banned Bell and members of his law firm from his court after Bell's remarks were made at a Washington University Law School forum.

Norwood also noted that in June 2003, a plaintiff's firm (the Lakin Law Firm) issued subpoenas against the presidents of several major tort reform associations "when they appeared at a press conference to exercise their constitutional right to speak out against litigation abuse in Madison County and to proffer solutions to improve the county's civil justice system."

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, remarked on Norwood's contribution to civil justice reform.

"The fact that a member of Congress from Georgia was so outraged by the conduct of Madison County's judicial system is yet another confirmation that the system was bad and embarrassing," Murnane said. "Hopefully, the changes that are being implemented in Madison County will continue to improve not only the conduct but also the image of the judiciary."

Norwood also told Ashcroft that the Madison County Circuit Court "has made a routine practice of violating defendants' due process rights."

He wrote, "Defendants are unfairly handicapped by many of the court's rulings and procedures, and in many cases are denied the basic protections that are in place to ensure that defendants have an opportunity to defend themselves in court."

Norwood also wrote that "civil justice system depends on the ability of our courts to be fair to all parties.

"Litigants must be able to go to court believing they will win or lose on the merits of the case or controversy to be decided, not based on whether they contributed to the judge's last election campaign. I believe all Americans share this bedrock view.

Norwood died at his home in Augusta, Ga. The U.S. House of Representatives interrupted debate on an Iraq war resolution for a moment of silence in his honor.

He suffered from a chronic lung disease and later developed metastatic cancer that spread from his lung to his liver, according to wire service reports.

Norwood was part of the Republican wave that took control of Congress in 1994.

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