Madison County ascends from ATRA's 'hellhole'

Ann Knef Dec. 18, 2007, 3:00am




For the first time since the American Tort Reform Association started ranking the nation's most unfair civil court jurisdictions, Madison County no longer makes the list.

The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) released its annual "Judicial Hellhole" report Tuesday and Madison County has moved "up" onto the ATRA's "Watch List," as has neighboring St. Clair County.

Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis, who has never accepted the American Tort Reform Association's "Hellhole" label anyway, says that getting off the list is a good thing "if it has a positive impact on how the public views the judiciary."

Callis, who has implemented a number of reforms since becoming chief judge last year, said the goal was never "to get off the list, but to restore the people of Madison County's confidence in our judicial sytem."

"If being off the list serves that goal, then I have to say, I am pleased," Callis said.

While Madison and St. Clair counties showed signs of improvement in the eyes of ATRA, the list again targeted the state's economic engine -- Cook County -- as one of the nation's most unfair and costly civil court jurisdictions.

Still, Madison County was lauded for moving off the list within five years of being named the worst in the country.

The announcement comes following a week in which Madison County jurors delivered five defense verdicts in personal injury, wrongful death, asbestos and medical malpractice trials.

On Monday, a Madison County courthouse insider observed that plaintiffs' lawyers "are going to stop filing their cases here."

"...[T]he biggest Midwest headline from this year's report may be the fact that Madison County, Illinois is no longer a 'Judicial Hellhole,'" said American Tort Reform Foundation President Sherman "Tiger" Joyce in a press release.

"In each of the last five years our report had cited Madison County as a leading Hellhole," Joyce said. "But led by Chief Judge Ann Callis and Judge Daniel Stack, the courts there have undertaken several positive reforms which justify moving the county this year to our 'Watch List.'

"As the public becomes more aware of problems within the courts, policymakers are more likely to correct those problems," Joyce said. "We've now seen that happen in Madison County, just as we saw it happen in Mississippi several years ago."

Stack, who leads the circuit's Civil Division, said he was pleased with the report, in that when someone decides to stop calling you names, it's "always good."

He said the moniker was "so disrespectful" and made everyone in the judiciary look worse than was deserved.

"But, I understand it's politics," he said.

After Callis was installed as chief judge in the Third Circuit in May 2006, one of her first orders of business was limiting class action lawyers to only one substitution of judge as of right. In Illinois any party to a lawsuit can substitute a judge once without cause.

She later cracked down on out-of-state attorneys, ordering them to be admitted pro hac vice through application by a licensed Illinois attorney. Callis also ruled that cases filed under seal require a court order.

Stack, who took over the busiest asbestos docket in the country from Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron in 2004, also had a hand in improving the judiciary's image. In a court where claimants from all over the country had been welcome and defendants from all over were forcibly invited, Stack made it clear he would dismiss cases that did not belong in Madison County.

"It is not the function of the courts to make money," Stack wrote in 2004 after dismissing a case. "This is not a 'business.' It is the function of the courts to administer justice."

But Stack credits the entire circuit for improvements that have been made in recent years.

"All of these reforms were passed with the support of the entire bench," Stack said. "There was not one dissent."

Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League said the ATRA's announcement is a "very good day for Madison County and all of southern Illinois."

"But there's good news/bad news," Murnane said. "Cook County dominates the state with half the population. It continues to be among the worst jurisdictions. That's not good for the state."

American Tort Reform Association general counsel Victor Schwartz said Madison County's "tactical victory" is worth celebrating, but the battle for equitable civil justice goes on.

"For proof," Schwartz said, "look no further than Cook County. Though long regarded as an environment that is hospitable to class actions and hostile to corporate defendants, Cook County has now expanded its repertoire with awards for noneconomic damages in wrongful death actions."

In November, Cook County Circuit Judge Diane Joan Larsen ruled that a law enacted in 2005 by the Illinois legislature violates victims' rights by capping damages.

Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, called ATRA's announcement a "landmark victory for Metro-East residents."

"For far too long the Metro-East's ranking as the worst judicial hellhole in the country has cost us jobs, clogged our courts and crippled economic development," Akin stated in a press release.

"But thanks to everyone in the Metro-East who spoke out in recent years against the costly lawsuit abuse epidemic that had made us into an embarrassing national laughingstock, we've turned the tide and are on the road to reform."

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Schwartz warned that plaintiffs' attorneys are pushing allies in Congress and state legislatures for "trial lawyer earmarks." Schwartz describes those as "hard-to-find provisions tucked into legislation that may seek, for example, to provide new private rights of action, limit federal preemption laws, or prohibit mutually agreed upon arbitration agreements."

The list released Tuesday morning also spotlights the contractual relationships between some state attorneys general and their "leading political patrons: personal injury lawyers," Schwartz said.

"Too often these arrangements are governed by non-competitive contracts that are negotiated behind closed doors, and the contingency fees upon which these contracts are typically based give private lawyers, backed by state authority, a pernicious incentive to maximize the damage awards a defendant may be obligated to pay, even if civil justice is minimized in the process," he said.

The complete ranking:

2007 Judicial Hellholes

1. South Florida
2. Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast, Texas
3. Cook County, Illinois
4. West Virginia
5. Clark County, Nevada
6. Atlantic County, New Jersey

Watch List

  • Madison County, Illinois
  • St. Clair County, Illinois
  • Northern New Mexico
  • Hillsborough County, Florida
  • Delaware
  • California

    Other areas to watch include: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Tucson, Arizona; Mississippi; Cuyahoga County, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; and Providence, Rhode Island.

    Dishonorable Mentions
  • District of Columbia: Consumer Law Takes Small Businesses to the Cleaners
  • Missouri Supreme Court: No Injury, No Problem
  • Michigan Legislature: Barely Repels Full Scale Assault on Civil Justice System
  • Georgia Supreme Court: Judicial Nullification of Tort Reform
  • Oklahoma Double Play: State Supreme Court and Governor Set Back Litigation Fairness

    Points of Light
  • West Virginia's Medical Malpractice Reforms Yield Results
  • Ohio Judge Denies Fabricated Claims: The Asbestos Buck Stops here
  • Mississippi Supreme Court: No Injury, No Money
  • Florida Courts Overturn Excessive Verdicts: Sunshine State Rains on Punitive Damages Parade
  • How a Bill Becomes a Law 101: Ohio Supreme Court Rejects Attempt to Veto Legislation After It Becomes Law
  • Courts Hold Line on Public Nuisance Claims

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