A five-and-a-half year old public relations proposal cited last week by Madison County Circuit Judge William Mudge as "hostile" toward the Madison County judicial system touches on more than just the county's judicial reputation.
It warns prospective client Syngenta Crop Protection to expect a publicity assault from plaintiff lawyer Stephen Tillery in a class action case involving the herbicide atrazine.
The October 2005 proposal produced by Jayne Thompson & Associates (JTA) of Chicago - obtained this week by the Madison County Record - states that Syngenta's revenue stream is at stake and the plaintiffs "are at war to take it from you."
"As the case unfolds in Madison County, it is reasonably foreseeable that some coverage will grant deference to allegations against atrazine," the document states. "Tillery's claims will be cloaked in terms of 'justice,' 'safety,' and 'prevention' in a David v. Goliath story line.
"Lest Syngenta have the slightest hesitation about engaging in a public campaign to counteract these lies, in addition to its vigorous legal defense, Tillery's lack of hesitation in pursuing his campaign should speak volumes. It's how he makes a considerable portion of his earnings."
Tillery has led dozens of class actions in Madison County, including a famous case against cigarette maker Philip Morris, which resulted in a $10.1 billion bench verdict in 2004.
In the same year, he filed six atrazine water contamination class actions on behalf of Holiday Shores Sanitary District. Since that time, various Illinois municipalities have been added as co-plaintiffs. In the case against Syngenta, a leading manufacturer of atrazine, plaintiffs allege the weed killer runs off farm fields and contaminates water supplies. The Syngenta case is the only one of six that has advanced into the discovery phase.
Mudge ordered Syngenta on April 20 to turn over JTA's public relations document to Tillery within 14 days. Syngenta had fought disclosure citing privilege.
While the document begins with an analysis of the county's "infamous" justice:
"'Madison County justice' is so infamous that the President of the United States of America flew there on January 5, 2005, specifically to denounce it. The U.S. Congress has acted to limit it."
It also goes on to tout the company's role as a "productive participant in Illinois' economy," discusses litigation communication, describes the product's importance to the agriculture industry, explains how it would deliver messages and who likely supporters might be.
In his order, Mudge quoted from the proposal, focusing on what he described was "a plan to tie the defense of this action into a negative public relations campaign that castigates the Madison County judicial system as a 'judicial hellhole' and a source of 'jackpot justice,' and, in part, to undertake efforts to enhance the public's perception of Syngenta and the herbicide it manufactures at the expense of the Madison County judicial system. It encourages Syngenta to 'selectively contact...pro-business columnists...in consultation with the company' who have coined those terms and make the case that it's now 'Syngenta's turn in the Madison County Barrel."
JTA namesake Jayne Thompson said in an interview Thursday morning that the firm's strategy, as outlined in a formal agreement with Syngenta, does not include using those themes as action items. She said that plaintiffs' counsel and the court would have been aware of that because they have been in possession of the agreement "for some time."
Mudge also wrote, "Although the document utilizes the term 'litigation support' on a couple of occasions, the proposal actually outlines an aggressive public relations strategy to build upon or create a hostile attitude toward the Madison County judicial system. While the proposal says 'we are not suggesting that the company author any or all of these themes,' several are, in fact, suggested in the document including, 'Another Madison County class action case going amuck,' and 'Now Madison County is going after the family farmers,' and so forth."
Mudge also noted the plan's intention to recruit supporters, including the Illinois Civil Justice League, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Heartland Institute, Illinois Policy Institute and this newspaper.
The Madison County Record is owned by the Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Over the past several years, this newspaper has routinely and extensively covered the lawsuits, including reports on an EPA study which found atrazine poses no harm to humans, an economic impact study showing the effects of an atrazine ban on agriculture, and a two-and-a-half year period in which the cases stalled in former Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack's chambers as he took motions to dismiss under advisement. Stack denied the defendants' motion to dismiss in July 2008.
Mudge's order of last week prompted local and regional media reports. It was also covered in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
Tillery issued a statement on April 20: "This ruling by Judge Mudge cuts to the heart of the campaign of intimidation being conducted against the courts and judges by corporations such as Syngenta and bankrolled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Not only are such allegations and accusations against the courts and judges false and totally inappropriate, but they clearly are aimed at tainting the pool of jurors who could be called to decide such cases. Some corporations and the Chamber are spending millions upon millions of dollars to subvert justice and to try to prevent the people of our region from exercising their right to seek damages for injuries caused by corporate misconduct, defective products, fraud, and deceptive practices."
The ruling also prompted reaction from the American Tort Reform Association and the Illinois Civil Justice League.
"The fact that Madison County courts have been cited among the nation's judicial hellholes has no bearing on the dispute in this case," said ATRA president Sherman "Tiger" Joyce. "Judges are supposed to make their rulings based on the law and relevant facts of a case, not on six-year old public relations strategies.
"One wonders if the judge also plans to evaluate any and all public relations efforts by the plaintiffs' lawyers to decide whether they should be admissible.
"In any case, it so happens that ATRA's extensively documented and widely reported annual Judicial Hellholes report cited Madison County as the #1 Judicial Hellhole in 2004 and again as the #4 Judicial Hellhole in 2005, so no one really needed a public relations campaign to be aware of what was going on in the county's courts then."
Ed Murnane, president of the ICJL, said, "It is very unfortunate that only five months after his promising election to the Madison County bench, Judge William Mudge now appears ready to join his predecessor and his colleagues as an advocate for, and partner of, the trial lawyer combine.
"Our discussions with candidate Mudge last year were very encouraging but he now seems to have followed the same path that his colleagues and supervisors have, which is to follow the wishes of the trial lawyers. It is not a promising sign for justice in Madison County."