Respect - not awards - for judges

Ed Murnane May 13, 2007, 7:30am

We've developed a considerable degree of respect for Chief Judge Ann Callis of Madison County and three of her colleagues, Judges Hylla, Stobbs and Chapman, during the past six months.

When she was a candidate for retention last November, Callis promised reforms in the Madison County judicial system, including establishing and maintaining a dialogue with the medical and business communities -- two segments of society that have been highly critical of the judicial system in Madison County. The Illinois Civil Justice League, a coalition of many medical and business interests, had been among the harshest critics.

Thus far, six months after the election, Callis has kept her word. She created a committee of judges to open that dialogue and they have followed her instructions. In fact, while Judge David Hylla is heading the committee dealing with medical issues, Callis herself has been an active participant in the process. The ICJL has participated in three meetings with Callis and Hylla (and Stobbs and Chapman) and there are very positive signs that the judges do want to fix the problems that have plagued Madison County for years.

Much of the improvement may be image-related but if the image of Madison County changes from being "plaintiff-friendly" to "fair," some of the litigation and lawyers who have tarnished the county's image are likely to look elsewhere. So a better image is an important part of the process, although certainly that's not all that is needed.

One other thing that is needed is to get Judge Nicholas Byron as far away from the courthouse as is possible.

Byron, at age 77, is likely in the final 19 months of his service. His term ends in December, 2008, and because of his age, he cannot seek retention, although there is little doubt that the heightened awareness of judicial problems in Madison County would result in his rejection if he could seek it. Just as former Appellate Judge Gordon Maag was ousted, it would seem certain that the same fate would await Byron. He could seek election in an open contest, running against an opponent, but that would seem unlikely also because the voters of Madison County have shown they want fair, unbiased judges.

And Byron has once again proved that he doesn't fall into that category.

Byron recently received an award from CitizenAction/Illinois and USAction, two extremely liberal organizations, that honored him for his service. Undoubtedly, they have been pleased with his service.

In fact, the award was actually given to Judge Byron by Judy Cates, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

It was also recently revealed that Byron is cooperating with trial lawyer Stephen Tillery in trying to reopen the Madison County case against Philip Morris in which he ruled against Philip Morris, only to have the case overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. Tillery stood to gain more than $1.5 billion in legal fees, awarded by Byron, so it's not surprising that he would do everything he can to resurrect the case.

The Illinois Civil Justice League has featured many judges at our meetings and events. Democrat and Republican, they have included five Supreme Court justices and several present or former presidents of the Illinois Judges Association. We have never given an award to a judge and we never will. We'll give them our respect -- and maybe some friendly advice -- but not an award or honor that could compromise their independence or the appearance of independence. It was inappropriate for Byron to accept an award, except as a retirement gift.

In July, Judge Ann Callis will be the speaker at our annual luncheon. She'll get our respect, but no award.

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