Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder has taken official control over one of the busiest asbestos dockets in the nation -- while in the meantime handing off most of her non-asbestos cases to Circuit Judge Daniel Stack.
According to an order signed by Chief Judge Ann Callis, the official transfer of the asbestos docket took place July 30.
The order also indicates that Stack, who is retiring before the end of the year, will preside immediately over all but 11 of Crowder's civil cases as a sort of place holder until the expected election of Bill Mudge who is running for Stack's vacancy in November. Mudge is unopposed.
Callis said Mudge would inherit the entirety of Crowder's old cases upon being seated.
"They'll eventually go to Judge Mudge," Callis said. "He needs to have a docket. This is all anticipatory."
Callis said that a body of law governing the succession of judges should take care of any potential clash of rulings as the cases move between judges, although she would not comment on specific cases.
If an issue does arise, Callis said, it would be addressed at that time.
The 11 civil cases Crowder will retain are ones in which she has motions under advisement. Once Crowder enters orders resolving those pending matters, Stack will get them as well.
The change, said Callis and Crowder in phone interviews Tuesday, isn't taking anyone by surprise.
"This wasn't sprung on anyone," Crowder said. "I already have stuff scheduled. I already have stuff on my desk to read."
Crowder takes reins after months of transition
July 30 marked the end of Stack's six years overseeing asbestos cases.
One of the reasons for the mid-year handoff is that Stack has been approached by various firms about doing work for them after he leaves the bench, he has said in previous interviews.
He said that some of those firms have cases pending on the asbestos docket and he could not enter career negotiations with any of them while those cases were before him.
Crowder said that although she would miss the attorneys she'd become familiar with while presiding over her major civil cases, she looked forward to the asbestos assignment.
"I have enjoyed every assignment I've ever had," Crowder said.
Callis ended the speculation that Crowder would take over the docket from Stack officially in February when she announced the assignment.
Stack and Crowder have spent the months since the announcement working through the transition with Crowder overseeing the first asbestos trial of 2010 in place of Stack and taking on the case loads from some of the smaller asbestos firms.
Last year, 814 cases were added to the docket.
Filings peaked in 2003 with 953 asbestos cases filed in Madison County.
Although filings then went down over the course of the next several years, filings have been on the rise in recent years.
As of June 30 of this year, 421 asbestos cases had been filed.
Stack took over the asbestos docket from former Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron, who oversaw asbestos for more than 17 years.
Callis: 'Asbestos was getting out of hand'
The handoff of Crowder's civil docket following the asbestos transfer had been discussed among the Third Judicial Circuit's judges for some time, Callis said Tuesday.
She said the judges have met throughout the transition to discuss how best to manage the work.
Callis had put herself into the civil rotation to help ease the burden on Stack and other judges.
Associate Judges Clarence Harrison II and Thomas Chapman have also both presided over civil trials this year to help with the heavy civil caseload.
And, Harrison helped Crowder last month during an asbestos trial week, working with attorneys whose cases eventually settled.
Callis said she took over Stack's civil docket last December because "the asbestos was getting out of hand."
"It's the same here," she said of Stack taking Crowder's cases. "She's just very, very busy with the asbestos docket and she just got out (of) a two-week trial."
The asbestos docket is so jammed in Madison County that it is not uncommon for attorneys to spill out into the hallway during motion calls.
Extra asbestos trial dates have also been added for next year.
Callis: Stack needs something to do
Callis said it made sense to give to Stack Crowder's cases.
"Well, Judge Stack needs something to do and he's willing to take over a civil docket until he retires," Callis said. "This is an even divide of the work load between the civil judges."
Crowder said the size of the asbestos docket wasn't the main reason she and her fellow judges chose to shift her civil cases to another courtroom.
"Judge Stack just pretty much volunteered," she said.
Keeping a docket together also makes it easier to manage, Crowder said.
The judges determined that the judge replacing Stack could take over the complete civil docket and that asbestos could be Crowder's main concern, particularly now that Callis hears civil cases.
"Judge Callis is already hip-deep or ankle-deep or neck-deep in her docket," Crowder explained. That addition has kept the case load even between the circuit judges, she said.
"It's really to keep everyone's cases moving," Crowder said.
Crowder could also eventually hear civil cases again, Callis and Crowder both said.
It depends on how the workload in the civil division shapes up.
"That's the fun thing about working with everyone here together," Crowder said. "We're always willing to tweak."
Civil filings stood at 809 as of the morning of Aug. 3.
Atrazine cases, other class actions await rulings
Although Stack is set to begin hearing Crowder's former civil cases this week, he has not gotten all of them just yet.
Crowder still has 11 civil cases that are awaiting various orders before they go across the hall to Stack.
Among the most high profile suits still in Crowder's hands are several of the series of proposed class action lawsuits over alleged water contamination by a popular herbicide.
Crowder took over the "atrazine" cases last August from Stack.
The cases, filed by lead plaintiff Holiday Shores Sanitary District, are only in the initial discovery stages.
Crowder has kept four of the six cases.
Of those, she has under advisement a motion to stay or dismiss the class action filed by Holiday Shores against defendant Syngenta Crop Protection Inc.
Syngenta has argued that a federal suit filed by Holiday Shores' attorney, Stephen Tillery, would provide a better remedy to Holiday Shores and the potential class than the older Madison County cases.
Filed this year, the federal suit against Syngenta and its Swiss parent company includes a class of water providers and municipalities from Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and others states.
It alleges nearly identical claims to those of the plaintiffs in the Madison County suits. Those plaintiffs as yet are not included in the federal case.
The other three atrazine suits awaiting orders from Crowder are those filed by Holiday Shores against defendants Dow, United Agri-Products and Makhteshim-Agan.
United Agri-Products has a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction pending.
Dow and Makteshim Again have motions to transfer venue on hold.
Since taking over the atrazine cases from Stack, Crowder has primarily settled discovery disputes between the parties.
Those cases will return to Stack after she resolves the outstanding issues in them, joining the other atrazine suits.
All the suits will then be overseen by Stack's replacement.
Other civil cases still assigned to the new asbestos judge are a breach of contract case set for a non-jury trial later this month, two stalled mutual fund class actions and a suit against an insurer brought by a victorious personal injury plaintiff who claims it left the defendant in the underlying suit vulnerable by settling.
Crowder said she plans to have the orders in the 11 cases completed as soon as possible.
The cases still left on Crowder's non-asbestos civil docket are as follows:
03-L-1539, Steve and Beth Dudley et al vs. Putnam et al.
03-L-1540, Steve and Beth Dudley et al vs. Putnam et al.
04-L-710, Holiday Shores Sanitary District et al vs. Syngenta Crop Protection Inc. et al.
04-L-711, Holiday Shores Sanitary District et al vs. United Agri-Products et al.
04-L-712, Holiday Shores Sanitary District et al vs. Makhteshim-Agan Agan et al.
04-L-713, Holiday Shoes Sanitary District et al vs. Dow et al.
04-L-1213, Kerasotes Theatres Inc. vs. Bank of Edwardsville.
06-L-588, Judy Buckles vs. Hopkins Goldenberg et al.
08-L-400, Joshua Hargis vs. Midwest Motor Sports.
08-L-673, P A Ted Spring Company vs. AMG Sales Inc.
10-L-050, Steven Kirk vs. Allstate Insurance Company.