Despite a continuing high number of asbestos cases filed in Madison County, the Illinois Civil Justice League (ICJL) gave the county high marks for improving its transparency and public access during a presentation to the county Judiciary Committee Friday morning.
According to ICJL president Ed Murnane and ICJL vice president Al Adomite, Madison County is no longer a judicial "hell-hole," an inglorious title that the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) had bestowed a few years ago due to the county's swollen civil court dockets.
Madison County Circuit Judges Barbara Crowder and Daniel Stack were on hand for the meeting and were praised, along with Chief Judge Ann Callis for the improvements.
Adomite and Murnane presented an analysis of litigation filings compiled by the ICJL.
Murnane serves is currently the chairman of the ATRA.
"The trend in Madison County has been very positive," Murnane told the committee. "Madison (County) is no longer a judicial hell-hole."
Murnane and Adomite cited St. Clair County as an example of a county that could improve its court systems, both in case numbers and openness.
Madison County and neighboring St. Clair County have acquired the hell-hole reputations in legal circles due to their high number of asbestos and other civil litigation filings. In 2003, Madison County had a record number of cases filed.
The analysis of Illinois Supreme Court records used to compile the presentation's data showed that while 100 other counties outside of Cook County had an average of about two lawsuits filed per 1,000 people, Madison County had eight filings per 1,000. St. Clair County was next in line with four filings per 1,000.
However, according to Murnane and Adomite, Madison County's judges have worked to decrease the number of cases they oversee and they have encouraged greater openness in their courtrooms.
For example, medical malpractice suits, according to the presentation, dropped from a decade high 61 in 2001 to 17 filed up to June 30 of this year.
Adomite told those gathered that, if Madison County could drop another 50 cases from its dockets, it would be perfectly in line with the other 100 or so counties forming what he called "the Downstate average."
While the judges and Circuit Clerk Matt Melucci's office were praised by the pair, they told the Judiciary Committee that Madison County could still work on its asbestos docket.
According to Adomite, an asbestos case is 135 times more likely to be filed in Madison County than in the more heavily populated Cook County.
After reviewing 469 cases from Madison County, he continued, he found 90 percent to be related to asbestos that he believed lacked a connection to Madison County. Seventy percent of those filings, he said, seemed to lack an Illinois connection.
Venue reform laws have been introduced from time to time at the Illinois legislative level but have stagnated including several bills considered this year.
However, leaving asbestos aside, Adomite said, Madison County has come a long way.
"We just wanted to let you know, as compared to the early part of the decade, things are really looking up," Adomite said.