With Madison and St. Clair counties ranking as the nation's fifth worst "Judicial Hellholes" - according to the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) - what do candidates seeking election in these courts think about the dubious distinction?
The report released this week by ATRA takes aim at Madison County for hosting a national asbestos docket and St. Clair County for its growing number of pharmaceutical lawsuits filed in such a way to defeat federal jurisdiction.
Stephen McGlynn, who was appointed to the St. Clair County bench in July after former judge Michael Cook resigned because he was arrested on heroin possession and weapons charges (and later pleaded guilty), attributes problems in the local court systems to the loss of independence in the courtroom.
McGlynn, a Republican, will face Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf, a Democrat, in the Nov. 4, 2014 election.
“My take is that, at the core of our legal system is the independence of a judiciary,” McGlynn said. “And when judges surrender their independence and allow party bosses to dictate who is appointed judges, they invite citizens to question whether those judges’ fidelity is to rule [in favor of] the law.”
He said that judges who fall short of expressing their political independence should “expect more cynical appraises of their work.”
“I am not one that is dismissive of criticism,” McGlynn said, “because I think it’s very important that we do what we can to maintain the integrity of the court and maintain the people’s confidence in the court.
“I don’t dismiss these ratings. I look at it and I am concerned that our courts have a lot of impressions that they are not as independent as they appear to be.”
McGlynn expressed dismay over the rankings, because he said there are good judges in Madison and St. Clair counties, but it takes a universal effort to make changes necessary to restore public confidence.
“Judges have to say no to litigants all the time and are going to have to start saying no to party bosses,” he said. “Until that happens I suspect that we will continue to suffer less than flattering evaluations.
“We can’t appear that our independence has been compromised and expect everyone to think that equality doesn’t suffer. The only way to get long-term respect is to show that you have some independence. You don’t want to give people a reason to become cynical about your efforts.”
McGlynn withheld his personal opinion of the report and St. Clair County’s ranking due to pending cases, but clarified that none of the pending cases criticized in the report are heard in his court room.
“I am constrained to address the report because it mentions specific cases that are pending in St. Clair County,” he said. “The rules prohibit me from talking about specific cases pending in the court.”
In his response to the report, Rudolf said he didn’t think criticism of St. Clair County was a “fair characterization.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Rudolf said. “I would be curious if they looked at the statistics of these cases that go to trial.”
He also questioned the analysis and rankings in ATRA’s report.
According to the report, the data is derived from court rulings and legislative actions in the civil courts throughout the year. The group states that it researches information through “publicly available court documents, judicial branch statistics, press accounts and various studies.”
Rudolf argued that verdicts entered within the last year clash with the report. Rudolf, however, does not preside over pharmaceutical cases which are subject of ATRA’s report.
He said he has had seven jury trials since March, which included several defense verdicts. And of the plaintiff verdicts, most money rewards were under $5,000, including his most recent cases, awarding the plaintiff $1,400 and another awarding $2,300.
Rudolf said despite ATRA’s negative portrayal of St. Clair County, the circuit court does a great job.
“All we can do is continue working hard,” he said. “We administer justice and we treat people fairly and we handle these cases appropriately. We have a fine judiciary in St. Clair County.”
In Madison County, the resignation of former Chief Judge Ann Callis inspired Associate Judge Clarence Harrison, a Democrat, and St. Jacob attorney John Barberis, Jr., a Republican, to seek the circuit court vacancy.
Judge James Hackett, a Republican who had long served as an associate judge was appointed to Callis’s position through Dec. 1, 2014, but is not seeking election to the seat he currently occupies.
Harrison, who had served as Madison County’s asbestos judge for nearly two years until he was reassigned to Family Court in late October, takes issue with ATRA’s report which criticizes Madison County for its record number of asbestos cases coming from claimants from across the country.
The report says that despite having only .oo8 percent of the U.S. population, Madison County accounts for one in four asbestos lawsuits filed in the U.S. while only one in 10 of the lawsuits filed here are claimed by a plaintiff who ever worked or lived in the county. The asbestos cases filed rose from 325 in 2006 to 1563 in 2012.
Harrison said the report is not clear on how or where it derives its verdict information, noting a recent jury verdict in favor of Georgia Pacific. He said that for the year, plaintiffs’ verdicts are “zero percent” and defense is at “100 percent,” with an average of “zero” over the last two years.
“Zero for 0 in two years. We’re just on fire. We’ll just have to put an end to that, you know, those runaway verdicts,” Harrison mocked.
He continued by asking if Madison County would move to sixth or seventh in the ranking if we “just had another zero verdict.”
The report concluded its focus on Madison County saying it “is not going to shed its reputation as a Judicial Hellhole until it makes substantive changes and no longer attracts opportunistic litigation tourists from across the country.”
Harrison’s biggest opposition to the report was its lack of solutions, saying that the report doesn’t give any guidelines on how to fix the problems, but just states what is wrong.
“Think about it for a court system. What do you do in response to one of these things? It’s not like it provides any type of feedback that can be used for any constructive purpose,” Harrison said. “I don’t know what you do with it. It doesn’t have any practical impact.”
Barberis issued a statement on the report pointing out the negative impact Madison County’s ranking has on the economy, calling it “a shame.”
“Regardless of whether our inclusion on this list is warranted or not, being included on it only hurts the job growth and overall economy of Madison County and the surrounding areas, not to mention the fact that it further tarnishes the reputation of the Madison County legal community,” Barberis stated.