Climbing out

The Madison County Record Dec. 22, 2007, 8:10am

Leadership counts.

That's the lesson of the latest good news for the courts of the Metro-East, which learned this week that they are no longer considered bona fide "judicial hellholes" by a Washington, D.C.-based legal reform group.

The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) released its annual assessment of courts across America on Tuesday, and Madison and St. Clair have officially slipped from its rankings. They now sit on the group's "Watch List," reserved for "jurisdictions that may be moving closer to or further away from full-blown Hellholes designation as their respective litigation climates improve or degenerate."

That's still something, but it's a long way from where we once sat.

Three years ago, Madison County was tops on this list. St. Clair was second. Of the 3,077 counties in the U.S., ATRA said our courts were un-fairest of them all.

From our view here on the ground in 2004, this couldn't seem to be an exaggeration.

Back then, legendary plaintiff's attorney Randy Bono was still on active duty, driving Judge Nick Byron's nationally notorious asbestos "rocket docket," lassoing cases in from across the country.

The landmark-- and since overturned-- $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris still had many lawyers fresh with envy. Stephen Tillery had his eye on $1 billion plus in legal fees, courtesy of Byron.

And the Lakin Law Firm was going class action crazy, setting land speed records for filing such suits. That's thanks to the earnestness of since-deposed local class action kings Gary Peel and Richard Burke, and serial, happily complicit plaintiffs like chiropractor Mark Eavenson.

Bono has "retired," Peel and Burke have left Team Lakin, Byron is no longer in charge of the asbestos docket, and then-Chief Judge Edward Ferguson, who tolerated this hellhole's heyday, is no longer.

That doesn't mean our courts are suddenly devoid of all nonsense-- a glance at this newspaper will serve up plenty evidence of room for more improvement.

But the management has changed around here, and for the better.

Thanks to Judges Ann Callis and Dan Stack for making our reputation their priority.

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