The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) said last summer that it no longer considered Madison County a "judicial hellhole" -- thanks, in part, to a declining number of asbestos lawsuits on the docket.

Madison still has four times as many lawsuits filed as 100 other Illinois counties, and 90 percent of those cases have no connection to Madison. Nevertheless, given where we once were, things have improved dramatically.

Much of the credit goes to retiring Circuit Judge Daniel Stack. Over a 17-year period, his predecessor, Circuit Judge Nick Byron, made Madison the friendliest venue in America for asbestos litigation, docketing nearly a thousand cases in a single year (953 in 2003). Stack has been considerably less welcoming.

We hope that Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder, who is taking over for Stack, will be even less hospitable. Although filings had declined from Byron's 2003 high mark, they've recently begun to rise again. Last year, 814 cases were added to the docket. In the first half of this year, 421 asbestos cases were filed. This is a troubling trend we cannot ignore.

Although we are not currently designated a judicial hellhole, Madison County remains on the ATRA "watch list" and could easily reclaim that dubious title. The consequences, we know from experience, are serious.

When the litigation industry booms, the rest of our economy suffers. We drive people and businesses away.

Being designated a judicial hellhole may be a welcoming sign for some trial attorneys, but it's a "Keep Out!" sign for everyone else.

Hellhole or not, we're stuck trying to downplay our negatives. Wouldn't it be fantastic if we had positives to accentuate instead? What if Madison County were a "judicial stronghold" – a place where people and businesses were treated fairly. Companies that left would come back, new ones would be started, and our declining population would grow again.

That's not an impossible dream. With Judge Crowder's help, it could be a reality.

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