Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron will be honored at the third annual Senator Paul Simon, Senator Paul Wellstone Awards program later this month in Chicago.
Sponsored by USAction and Citizen Action/Illinois, the award recognizes Byron for his work "to ensure justice in cases involving injury from asbestos and tobacco."
Citizen Action, whose board of directors is comprised mainly of union heads and other liberal-minded thinkers, says on its website that it has "always taken a strong position on medical malpractice and so called 'tort reform' by opposing any restrictions on an individual's right to sue or limits on jury awards."
Byron used to preside over Madison County's asbestos docket when it was the busiest such court in the nation.
While at the asbestos helm, Byron barred former U.S. Attorney Griffin Bell and his Atlanta-based from his courtroom after Bell suggested the need for a federal investigation into the administration of civil justice in Madison County. Bell remarked during a forum at Washington University Law School in St. Louis in April 2004 that courts such as Madison County's -- known for treating civil defendants unfairly -- bring a "stain on our system."
Circuit Judge Daniel Stack took over the Madison County asbestos docket late in 2004.
Byron also earned attention for a $10.1 billion bench verdict he leveled against Philip Morris tobacco company in 2003. The class action case, which claimed the tobacco company duped smokers into believing light cigarettes were healthy, eventually was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the matter.
Another case which garnered national attention came from Byron's court. In March 2003, a Madison County jury in Byron's courtroom awarded $250 million (including $200 million in punitive damages) to retired Gary, Ind. steelworker Roby Whittington who claimed U.S. Steel exposed him to asbestos that caused his lung cancer. Whittington was represented by prominent trial attorney (and former judge) Randy Bono.
Byron, 77, was appointed associate judge in 1981 and later was appointed to the circuit court by the Illinois Supreme Court in January 1989. He served as chief circuit judge from 1995-97.
One year after being appointed to the Madison County circuit, Byron was challenged for the Democratic nomination for circuit judge in 1990 by then associate judge (and now fellow circuit court judge) Stack. Byron was victorious.
USAction, which co-sponsors the awards program, is an anti-war, environmentalist group.
"We believe that America should be a leader for peace in the world community, and so we want to bring our troops home from Iraq," states the award invitation.
The ceremony will be held April 30 at Hotel Allegro in Chicago.
Attorney Judy Cates of Swansea, president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, is the event co-chair. Honorary co-chairs are Lt. Governor Pat Quinn and AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan.
The group also is honoring Maj. Tammy Duckworth, an outspoken Iraq War veteran and critic, who now serves as the head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Duckworth lost both legs while serving with the Illinois Army National Guard in Iraq in November 2004. She was co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter north of Baghdad when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the cockpit of her aircraft and exploded.
She lost a congressional race last year in the 6th District running as a Democrat against Republican Peter Roskam.