Timing is everything.

A day before the annual "Judicial Hellholes" report was released publicly, Judge Ann Callis removed Judge Barbara Crowder from the asbestos docket in Madison County after news reports indicated that Crowder had allocated 82 percent of the valuable asbestos docket slots to three law firms that coincidentally had contributed to Crowder's campaign coffers to the tune of $30,000.

Removing Judge Crowder from the asbestos docket was the right thing to do because it was essentially like having a referee who is being paid by one of the team's on the field. With personal injury lawyers stacking the decks in Madison County, it is not all that surprising to see why Madison and St. Clair Counties were once again ranked as two of the worst Judicial Hellholes in the country.

Reserving asbestos slots in excess of the actual local needs of Madison County is essentially an 'if you build it – they will come' situation in Madison County and it has opened the door for Madison County to capture cases without any connection to the county or even a connection to the state of Illinois. Personal injury lawyers have been gaming the system for years in Madison County and it is no wonder so many of them are so eager to have their cases filed there.

So, as Judge Crowder was removed from the asbestos docket, Madison and St. Clair Counties were added to the Judicial Hellholes list.

According to the report from the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF), Madison and St. Clair counties were jointly ranked as the nation's 5th worst Hellhole after a four-year absence from the rankings. After reforms were implemented in Madison County in 2006, the 2007 report recognized the progress being made in the Metro-East and removed Madison and St. Clair counties from the rankings, placing them instead on the "Watch List."

But following a flurry of questionable lawsuits filed in Metro-East courts by personal injury lawyers on behalf of out-of-state plaintiffs and an explosion in the number of asbestos cases filed there, Madison and St. Clair counties have clearly suffered a relapse.

Now that the Metro-East is once again ranked as one of the country's worst judicial hellholes, voters should take their responsibility to evaluate and render verdicts on judges and judicial candidates even more seriously than usual. Voters soon will have a chance to weigh in on whether area judges are working to strengthen reforms and restore fairness to Metro-East courts.

In the end, we all pay and we all lose because of the legal climate in Madison and St. Clair Counties. Companies look to create jobs where the legal climate is fair. If we want to bring jobs and opportunities back to Illinois, then we must make improving the Metro East's legal climate a priority. It is time for area residents to take a stand and make sure Madison and St. Clair Counties shed their reputations as "Judicial Hellholes" once and for all.

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