With little more than a year to serve before his term expires in December 2010, Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack said he plans to make a big change to the court's asbestos standing order.
Stack said he will modify a portion of the order that sets trial dates for plaintiff firms more than a year and a half in advance.
The particular portion he will modify establishes in March of each year up to 28 jury trial weeks for the following year. Future trial dates are awarded to firms based on their past need for trial dates, Stack said.
"In my opinion we must do something to change," Stack said. "It's going to be done before I am out of here."
An asbestos defense attorney who spoke on background said that securing trial dates is an advantage for plaintiff attorneys because they prompt settlements, which in Madison County average close to $2.5 million.
The order, which was established in 2004 by former Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron, allows plaintiff firms to submit requests for trial dates and serve the same to defense counsel of record, without specifying cases to be set.
"If you have trial dates you will get referrals, is what appears to be going on," Stack said.
"It has been expressed, 'if you build it they will come,'" he said.
Stack said he had learned from talking to some defense lawyers that "this has become a problem."
The asbestos docket in Madison County has grown each year since 2006. As of Nov. 6, 656 new asbestos cases had been filed in the Edwardsville courthouse, compared to 639 in 2008.
Having peaked in 2003 with 953 filings, Madison County continues to carry one of the heaviest asbestos dockets in the country.
Glancing at his computer during an interview Wednesday, Stack said he can already tell what his November 2010 docket looks like.
He indicated the order will be worked on beginning in December and will be finished no later than before March. Stack said he would talk with lawyers on both sides to determine how he will rewrite the order.
While he plans on changing the standing order regarding trial setting, Stack said the practice has made it "easier" for both sides to know what they're dealing with. He said defendants often have to contend with trial dockets in several other courts across the country.
"Part of the reason why it's good is that you know your exposure," he said. "It gives you the ability to make an annual budget... they can make a package deal."
Stack maintains that Madison County is a convenient, efficient and fair place for asbestos litigation.
"Everybody knows everybody," Stack said.
He said that lawyers before him will sometimes fight "tooth and nail" and sometimes want to "even take it outside."
But, many of those who battle in court are friends on the outside, he said.