New sheriff in town

by John J. Hopkins |
Jun. 11, 2006, 9:44am

With the exception of some comedies like "Blazing Saddles," the phrase, "There's a new sheriff in town," does not actually appear in any Western movie, at least as far as I can tell.

Yet, despite its lack of real cinematic pedigree, it has become a part of our folklore, an expression that signals a change in the works, a new, radical and better way of doings things, one that is long over due, and while in the process some toes might get stomped, it is clearly for the best.

Here in the Third Circuit, we have had our own recent transformation, our own changing of the guard, the arrival of our own "New Sheriff in Town."

Riding in not on a white stallion, but a silver BMW convertible, the new "Protector of Law and Justice" is the recently elected Chief Judge Ann Callis, the first female Chief in the Circuit's more than 100-year history.

Chief Judge Callis (CJC) served notice early and loudly that business as usual was over. Addressing head on the problem of so- called "Judge Shopping," she announced on the second day of her two-year term the new Circuit rule 4.01, designed to limit the practice of multiple discretionary changes of judges in Class Action cases, without regard to the number of plaintiffs that might be added later.

This reform, thought by many to be long overdue and badly needed, was enough of a tonic to the system to cause Chamber mouthpiece Ed Murnane to begrudgingly remark, "To Judge Callis' credit, it looks as if she is trying to do something to make the justice system at least more efficient, and hopefully fairer."

In announcing the rule change, CJC promised still more to come. No idle vessel, she delivered again.

A scant few weeks later, the second major reform was unveiled. The practice of indiscriminate approval of motions for Admission Pro Hac Vice for attorneys from outside the area was for some, the root cause of a court system choking to death with unwarranted volume.

By restricting admission to practice by attorneys neither licensed or domiciled, the theory is that Edwardsville will lose its luster as a forum convenient, and the volume of cases will drop, with the system freed up to handle more efficiently the business of resident taxpayers. The preamble to the new rule specifically states its purpose to "discourage attorneys from other jurisdictions in the United States from frequently practicing in this circuit..."

The wisdom and propriety of the new rules will be tested by history. What is clear here and now is the breath of fresh air ushered in by the reign of CJC. Standing in stark contrast to her immediate predecessor, CJC is bold and innovative, while he was more often than not, weak and ineffective.

While at least so far, CJC informs and involves the media, he was oft times secretive and paranoid about the media - especially this publication. While CJC understands the role of a leader and appreciates the power of the bully pulpit to effectuate change, he presided over an unprecedented diminution in the public respect for the court system without nary a whimper, claiming to be powerless to reign in or discipline a system seemingly out of control, rocked by one scandal after another.

No matter his accomplishments as an individual jurist -- and they indeed are many -- his legacy will be ultimately defined by the fact that on his watch as chief judge, the ship hit the public relations iceberg.

This was never more clear than in the sealing of the Lakin sex abuse lawsuit, a case that about which more shall be definitely written.

The filing of the case sent shock waves throughout the Third Circuit, as Lakin friends and foes scrambled to get out of the way. Public confidence in the fairness of the legal system when the rich and powerful stand accused is tenuous at best, but when the perception of favored treatment rises, confidence abates altogether.

Showing again unbelievably poor judgment, the predecessor, with legal authority so thin as to be damn near invisible, sealed the file and removed it from view, giving out the special treatment denied the general public.

Fortunately, in one of her first acts, CJC participated in the process that unsealed the file, and with the antiseptic of sunshine, the problem resolved.

The future of CJC is bright and without boundaries. Her journey begins in Edwardsville, but may take her to Mt. Vernon, Springfield or even Washington. She stands a more than even chance to be one day considered the most powerful woman in the history of the legal system in Madison County, a fate that I am sure she neither covets nor even thinks seriously about.

While unlimited praise is the tone today, that was not always my view of Ann Callis, as I opposed her appointment to the associate bench, a position I believed to be correct at the time.

I say now publicly what I have previously only uttered in private, and that is --I was wrong, very wrong, dead wrong. The "Princess" label given in a recent Record editorial is likewise dead wrong. All that she has accomplished as a jurist she has earned, she has worked for, she has deserved. Consider this to be both a personal and editorial apology.

Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I have seen the light, and the light is good. It is the light of courage, the light of optimism, the light of leadership. A light that can bring us out of the shadows, and restore faith in a system we all cherish.

We shall stand by with hope.

More News