Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis makes his debut as boss of the asbestos docket on Thursday.
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Lawyers who crowd into Madison County Courthouse for Thursday’s asbestos status call will operate under a new judicial gaze. After nearly 10 years of administering the county's large asbestos docket, Judge Nicholas Byron has handed the docket to Judge Phillip Kardis. Kardis’ fist day in court will be Sept. 10.
As chief asbestos judge, Byron came under heavy fire from pro-business and industry groups who believe his decisions and demeanor have favored plaintiffs in the multi-billion dollar asbestos litigation. Last year an Indiana man won $250 million from U.S. Steel in Byron's court, which is believed to be the largest individual verdict ever awarded in asbestos litigation.
Kardis, of Alton, must handle not only the public pressure that comes with the docket but also an enormous workload. In 2003 there were 953 asbestos lawsuits filed in Madison County including more than 400 cases involving mesothelioma, the most serious asbestos-related illness. According to some estimates Madison County is home to 25 percent of the nation’s asbestos litigation.
However, few of those cases are likely to go to trial. Since 1996, Madison County has seen only four asbestos trials. Kardis will primarily rule on motions and discovery matters and oversee settlement negotiations.
Local lawyers expect that Kardis, a 15-year veteran on the bench, will handle the cases with fairness and impartiality.
“Judge Kardis is a bright and intelligent individual who will do a wonderful job with the asbestos docket,” said Randall Bono, a former Madison County Circuit Judge now practicing at Simmons Cooper in East Alton.
Since his appointment in 1989, Kardis has presided at the Madison County Circuit Court’s Granite City courtroom. He will continue to handle the Granite City docket, but will appear in Edwardsville for asbestos hearings, including the regular docket call.
Among Madison County lawyers, Kardis has a reputation as an impartial and capable jurist. Although few would speak freely about the judge, several said they expect his presence to help deflect criticism directed at Madison County’s prominent asbestos docket.
“Phil is a very fair and honest judge,” said one lawyer, speaking on condition that his name not be used. “He is what Madison County needs.”
Madison County voters agreed with that assessment in 2002, when Kardis won retention with more than 75 percent of the vote. That victory was assisted at least in part by a series of 30-second television commercials urging Metro-East voters to retain Kardis, Byron and Judge Charles Ferguson. The three judges, appointed together in 1989, paid for the ads out of a joint campaign war chest totaling more than $150,000. Kardis’ contributions came in part from a $500-per-plate fundraising dinner hosted by personal-injury attorney Mike Bilbrey at the Bilbrey Farms bed and breakfast outside of Edwardsville.
But not all the contributions came from the plaintiffs’ bar--the judges asked for and received money from the Madison County Republican Central Committee.
The judges’ fundraising, unprecedented in area judicial-retention elections, was designed to help them counter attacks by corporate interest groups taking aim at Madison County’s reputation as a class-action hub.
Kardis won some of his own notoriety in 1998 when he ordered Civic Memorial High School in Bethalto to reinstate nine football players who had been suspended for drinking. Kardis ruled that the school may have violated the students’ right to due process and, more controversially, that the students had a property interest in playing football because of the potential for college scholarships. The decision made headlines in newspapers around the Midwest. It was overturned on appeal.
Another of Kardis’ rulings led to an important decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1997. In that case Kardis denied a change of venue motion in a personal injury action even though neither party lived in Madison County and the injuries arose in Macoupin County (where the plaintiff lived). The Fifth Apellate District upheld Kardis but the decision was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that bringing the suit in Madison County amounted to forum shopping.