It's no accident that U.S. President George W. Bush selected Collinsville, Ill. to make his case for legal reform--a priority domestic policy agenda item.
President Bush will address an invitation-only crowd of nearly 1,500 Jan. 5 at the Gateway Convention Center, located in Madison County--noted as the worst circuit courthouse in the country by the American Tort Reform Association.
"The problem is not going to go away. President Bush is raising the bar by tackling this issue and I believe something will be done sooner rather than later," said Republican Congressman John Shimkus, whose hometown is site of the president's address on medical liability reform.
Shimkus, (R-19), whose Collinsville district office was tapped to coordinate the president's visit, said he expects "rapid" congressional action on the president's proposals to limit asbestos, class action and medical malpractice awards. Recent Republican gains in the House and Senate should provide momentum for passage this year, Shimkus said. Similar legislation which passed in the House last year, died in the Senate.
"We already have a template to work with," Shimkus said. "I would be shocked if there was not action by May."
Democrat Congressman Jerry Costello, (D-12), said he appreciates the president's visit to the Metro East, but doesn't believe the answer to ending physician exodus from southern Illinois is fixed by capping legal damages.
“I am very pleased that the president is visiting southwestern Illinois Wednesday," Costello said. "He is keeping a very important issue in the forefront.”
“Non-economic caps alone will not fix the problem. All parties involved must be held accountable including insurance companies, attorneys who forum shop, and physicians."
Costello added that he would prefer to see legislation passed on a state level, rather than on the federal level, since many states have already adopted reforms.
State Senator Frank Watson, R-Greenville, said that even though the issue did not advance last year in the Illinois legislature, the president's visit could help reinvigorate proponents' cries for tort reform.
"The fact that the president is coming to Madison County sends a huge message that we've got a major problem with the high cost of medical liability insurance," Watson said. "It's a perfect forum to showcase the crisis."
Watson, who is Republican leader in the state senate, said he hopes the election of Lloyd A. Karmeier to the Illinois Supreme Court hit a chord with his Democratic counterparts.
"The Democrats had a chance to be statesmen last year, but they didn't take it," Watson said. "They paid a political price with the election of Karmeier. And maybe that's what they understand--politics."
Shimkus called the president's visit to Collinsville "bittersweet."
"It's great to have the president visit and I applaud his tackling this issue. But I wish we could be talking about how the crisis has improved."
President Bush has indicated that he plans to make the topic a “priority issue” in his State of the Union address later this month. His priorities include setting federal caps on pain and suffering awards, restricting large scale class action lawsuits that have multiple plaintiffs in several states, and legislation to resolve long-standing suits over asbestos contamination.
Some reports claim that Madison County is home to at least 25 percent of the nation's asbestos litigation.
Madison County Republican Committee Chairman Rosalie Davis is thrilled about the president's visit.
“I am delighted that he is coming," she said. "I think this will be good for the county as most people already know this issue is a problem, but with President Bush talking about it, it may open more eyes.”
Madison County Circuit Judge George Moran Jr., who has served on the bench for more than 20 years, said he welcomes the president's visit.
“He certainly has a right to speak,” Moran said. "Judges are not above criticism. However, simply lumping Madison County judges as one is simply false. We are not a conglomerate of judges, we are all different.”
Bob Walters, chairman of the Southern Illinois Industrial Association, said a Republican president visiting southern Illinois, while unusual, is warranted.
“This (region) is a Democratic stronghold," Walters said. "The Democrats know it and Republicans know it is a stronghold, and not a swing area.”
“However this is a crisis. It's not just doctors affected by the need for tort reform, it's all businesses.”
“But the key to reform is in Washington, not on the state level.”
Former St. Clair County Board member Joe Behnken, a Republican from O'Fallon, said that even if federal legislation is enacted, he doubts it would be given a chance to improve the state's legal climate.
"The ink would not even be dry on a federal law before you'd have Illinois suing the U.S. government for violating states rights," Behnken said.
"The president is powerless--we all are--at the mercy of the state legislature. We all know that people would vote for a constitutional amendment to have caps on damages if given the chance.
"But the legislature knows the will of the people and they have ignored the will of the people--completely."