Voters are being encouraged to educate themselves on judicial candidates running for election and judges running for retention during this week of "Lawsuit Abuse Awareness," especially those who have personal injury litigation backgrounds or who receive campaign contributions from personal injury interests.
Travis Akin, executive direction of the Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (I-LAW), a grassroots, non-partisan legal watchdog group. coordinated rallies outside the Madison County courthouse in Edwardsville and the St. Clair County courthouse in Belleville on Tuesday.
In O'Fallon, Mayor Gary Graham signed an official city proclamation recognizing Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week and encouraged voters to become educated about the positions, backgrounds and supporters of judicial candidates on the ballot for November.
At the rallies, I-LAW supporters distributed “Good Judges Matter” voter guides to people entering the courthouses while a billboard truck circled the buildings with the message “Good Judges Matter: Don’t forget to vote in all the judicial elections on the ballot Nov. 8.”
Akin said that the goal is to shed light on the fact that too many Metro-East judges have allowed personal injury lawyers to take control of the courts.
A study released law month from the Illinois Civil Justice League shows that contributions given by Illinois personal injury lawyers to Illinois judges and politicians surpassed $35.25 million in the past 15 years.
Madison and St. Clair counties have been ranked as two of the worst “judicial hellholes” in the country, Akin said, due to the close ties area judges and personal injury lawyers hold there.
“Madison and St. Clair counties, not surprisingly, are among the counties with the highest donations from personal injury lawyers and firms,” Akin told the Record. “It’s a never-ending cycle of abuse. The personal injury lawyers make money from the judgments and settlements awarded by these judges, then they use that money to make donations to those very same people running for election or re-election as judge.”
The best way to combat this cycle is to vote them out and elect judges who will stand up to personal injury lawyers and say no to lawsuits that do not have a common-sense connection to the area, Akins said.
“We’re trying to show how personal injury lawyers are gaming the system and hopefully, residents and voters will pay attention to what’s going on and do something about it,” he said. “They put their own from this field into these judicial positions. These judges are coming from personal injury law firms, they are their friends and former colleagues, and then we wonder how the system is rigged in Illinois.”
At the rally this week in front of the Madison County courthouse, I-LAW supporters threw penalty flags in response to the appointment to the bench last year of a lawyer from the personal injury law firm that, in the past several years, has filed the most asbestos lawsuits in Madison County, almost all of which are from plaintiffs who have no connection to Madison County.
A former asbestos attorney, Jennifer Hightower, had graduated from law school just six years prior to be picked as an associate judge for the Third Judicial Circuit last year.
Three Metro-East circuit court judges who were up for retention elections this year, which requires a 60 percent approval vote to be retained, decided instead to vacate their seats and not run for retention. They are seeking election to the vacancies they created through open seat elections this November that only require a simple majority to win, Akin said. Those three judges are John Baricevic, Robert Haida and Robert LeChien.
“These judges, who have received numerous campaign contributions from personal injury lawyers, are now following the lead of their friends in the plaintiffs’ bar who repeatedly game the system in the Metro-East to make sure they win and cash in,” Akin said. “If you talk to the defendants who have appeared in front of these judges, who have had their businesses dragged into Madison or St. Clair county courts, they would concur that the shenanigans going on there have cost them millions of dollars over the years.”
Akin said those three judges are an example of why change needs to occur in the state.
“In the past 10 years, 354,000 adult workers have left the state, because the jobs aren’t here. We need to do something different,” he said. “We try to work with the lawmakers and our leaders in Springfield to enact meaningful lawsuit reform. Our governor, Bruce Renner, who is strongly in favor of lawsuit reform, has proposed a number of lawsuit reform proposals, but the Legislature is dragging its feet.”