Byron nearing end of term, but not ready to retire

Ann Knef Nov. 14, 2008, 8:41am


In two weeks Judge Nicholas Byron will hang up his black robe for the last time, after serving on the Madison County Circuit Court since 1981.

At 78, Byron said he would like to "go out quietly" as he ends his third term as elected circuit court judge. State law restricts judges over age 75 from running for retention.

Byron, whose profile became national following a $10.1 billion Philip Morris bench verdict in 2003, said his handling of the case has "probably been distorted."

He declined to elaborate on Madison County's most notable case, Price v. Philip Morris, other than to say his effort to lower the company's bond payment had not been acknowledged.

"I'm the one who provided for alternate bond, but I never got credit," Byron said.

In March 2003, Byron issued a $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris that included $1.8 billion in lawyers' fees. The verdict, which was eventually overturned, was the result of a class action lawsuit filed by attorney Stephen Tillery alleging the tobacco company defrauded smokers by claiming that light cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes.

Byron had lowered the bond required of Philip Morris so that the company could remain solvent. While on appeal, the county earned $13.6 million on interest from the tobacco company's bond payments.

Byron pointed to another large Madison County verdict, also reached in March 2003, in which a jury awarded a Gary, Ind., man a staggering $250 million for his asbestos claim.

"That case should have been settled," Byron said. He said he didn't want to say anything bad about the lawyers involved. But, "it could have been settled for peanuts," he said.

The jury awarded retired steelworker Roby Whittington $250 million, including $200 million in punitive damages. Whittington claimed U.S. Steel exposed him to asbestos that caused his lung cancer. He was represented by prominent trial attorney and former Madison County Judge Randy Bono.

At the end of the trial, the jury assigned 100 percent of liability to U.S. Steel. The jury awarded $50 million in actual damages and $200 million in punitive damages.

Three days later, U.S. Steel and Whittington settled the case. Byron vacated the jury's judgment.

During a conversation in Byron's chambers Wednesday morning, he also indicated he has "no problem" with media coverage he has received.

Byron, who presided over the nation's busiest asbestos docket until 2004, and who has certified some of the largest nationwide class action lawsuits, said, "I did my job. I got paid."

As a conversation drifted toward the nation's souring economy, Byron said, "I'm a consumerist. But right now we have to salvage corporations" that provide jobs.

He said the nation's auto industry must be saved.

"We can't let them fold," he said. "We can't let them fail."

"God help us," he said regarding the nation's economic crisis.

Not ready to retire completely, Byron said he plans to become a mediator, "but not in torts," and "not here, somewhere else."

He said he had a couple of "big ventures" in the works.

"I hate not to work," he said. "I recommend you work until you die."

He said he would also like to play a role in resolving the nation's foreclosure crisis.

He suggests there be some form of a federal governmental "tribunal" to resolve the widespread problem by, for instance, reducing interest rates or extending contracts.

He recommends that Madison County be named as site to one of five national commissions where people can resolve their foreclosure without losing their home.

"There is a good bar in Madison County," Byron said. "There are very astute lawyers here."

Byron was born in Michigan in 1929 and was raised in northern Indiana.

He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University, in 1953 and his law degree from Washington University School of Law in 1958.

He served in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer from 1953 to 1955.

In 1968, Byron was elected as an Edwardsville alderman. In 1972, he was elected Madison County state's attorney, where he served until 1980. He was defeated in his bid for a third term.

He was appointed associate judge in 1981 and served until 1989.

Byron was then appointed to circuit judge by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1989.

One year after being appointed to the Madison County Circuit Court, Byron was challenged for the Democratic nomination for circuit judge in 1990 by then associate judge, and now fellow Circuit Court judge, Daniel Stack. Byron was victorious.

Byron served as chief circuit judge from 1995 to 1997.

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