The courts of Cook and Madison counties, as well as the state of Illinois, have again ranked very poorly in the eyes of business leaders, a survey says, hampering the state’s economic growth, reducing the state’s tax haul, and making it more difficult to pay Illinois’ bills and provide needed public services, according to Ill. Gov. Bruce Rauner and representatives of the nation’s largest business association.
On Thursday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform released a report, "Ranking the States: 2015 Lawsuit Climate Survey," detailing the results of an annual survey of more than 1,200 senior corporate attorneys and other business executives responsible for litigation at large companies with annual revenues of at least $100 million. Rauner joined officials with the ILR, U.S. and Illinois chambers of commerce to discuss the report at a press conference in Chicago.
Conducted by polling firm Harris Poll from March 9 – June 24, 2015, the survey queried corporate attorneys and executives of their opinions on the court systems operated by the nation’s 50 states and their more local jurisdictions. It did not ask about the federal courts operating within those states.
Overall, more than 60 percent of respondents said they perceived state courts across the country as “doing better than average” on certain key elements, including enforcing venue requirements, handling class action cases, installing competent judges and empaneling fair juries, among others.
However, the report revealed business leaders believe more reforms are needed in the courts – and particularly in certain jurisdictions, where business leaders say judges and juries have not treated businesses as fairly as they could have.
Cook County and Madison County fared particularly poorly in the survey. Twenty percent of those responding ranked Cook County or Chicago as the “worst local jurisdiction” in the country. An additional 16 percent pinned that designation on Madison County, meaning the two Illinois jurisdictions combined to receive more than one-third of respondents’ votes for worst legal environment in the country.
Nationally, Cook County ranked as the second worst local jurisdiction, behind only the East Texas court system. Madison County ranked fourth worst, essentially tied with Los Angeles, and just ahead of New Orleans, which rounded out the five worst jurisdictions named by survey respondents.
The poor showing for Cook and Madison counties helped contribute to an overall poor perception of Illinois’ state and county court systems. Overall, respondents ranked Illinois’ legal climate 48th out of the nation’s 50 states, with only Louisiana and West Virginia considered worse by the corporate attorneys and executives surveyed.
And they further ranked the state’s court systems no better than 47th in each key category about which Harris and the ILR specifically asked in the survey.
Corporate attorneys, for instance, ranked Illinois 50th in enforcing venue requirements and preventing so-called “venue shopping” among trial lawyers seeking friendly judges and juries before which to bring their cases. The state ranked 49th for “treatment of class actions and mass consolidation” cases. And Illinois ranked 48th in several other categories, including jury fairness and judicial competence.
States bordering Illinois fared better, led by the Iowa legal system, which ranked fourth nationally. Indiana was ranked 18th, Wisconsin 20th, Kentucky 39th and Missouri 42nd.
“Illinois is a litigation haven, that beckons to lawyers across the nation,” said ILR President Lisa Rickard.
Rauner, the Chamber representatives and others representing legal reform groups said perceptions of a state’s legal climate among large employers can matter a great deal for the state and its future.
The ILR report noted about three-quarters of company attorneys and executives said the legal climate would be either “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to determine whether they might locate or expand their business in a state, county or city.
Rauner said the state and particularly Cook and Madison counties need a better “balance of outcomes” between plaintiffs and employers.
He said as he attempts to recruit businesses to locate in Illinois, he often hears concerns raised by business leaders about Illinois’ legal climate. He said executives and business owners are concerned they will “open themselves up to attack” and “large judgments,” should they choose to locate in the state, and in Cook County, particularly.
Rauner said this has made Illinois less competitive in recruiting large businesses to the state, in turn contributing to the state’s budget woes, reducing revenue he said was needed to fund state and social services, pay down the state’s pension obligations and offset the need to raise taxes.
“We can’t fix our challenges unless we’re growing,” Rauner said.
To address the perceived issues in the state’s legal climate, Rauner said he has introduced reform legislation, including bills to reduce venue shopping – requiring litigants have some real tie to the jurisdiction in which the litigation is filed – and to address concerns over joint and several liability among defendants.
However, Rauner said those bills have yet to be taken up by the Democratic leadership in the Illinois General Assembly, who he said have expressed varying levels of “reluctance” to discuss the reforms he believes need to be tied to discussions of the state’s budget.
“The majority party is refusing to discuss reforms on any level,” Rauner said, adding they only wish to discuss certain “spending levels and raising taxes.”
He said Democrats know raising taxes will be unpopular, so he said Democratic leadership is waiting on him to take on the task. Rauner said he is not opposed to some tax increases, but said any tax increases need to be accompanied by reforms, such as the lawsuit reforms he has introduced.
The governor did not indicate why he believes the Democrats are reluctant to discuss his legal reforms. However, public campaign finance disclosure indicate trial lawyers regularly rank among the biggest campaign contributors to Illinois Democrats, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle.
Illinois Chamber President Todd Maisch said the annual ILR report can help build “the political will” to institute reforms.
Policymakers and lawmakers “know Madison County is a national embarrassment,” but they lack the will to change the system, mainly because the problems are out of sight for most Illinoisans.
“The political will is the final hurdle,” Maisch said.
Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch Executive Director Travis Akin said that courts in the Metro-East for "far too long" have been "magnets" for personal injury lawyers and plaintiffs.
“It’s just common sense to require lawsuits filed in Illinois to have an actual connection to Illinois, and yet in Madison County, 98 percent of the asbestos lawsuits filed there are for plaintiffs who do not live in that county. That is an absurd misuse of our courts and our tax dollars, and it victimizes all of us.”
Following the press conference, the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association responded to the results of the ILR survey, calling the report “bogus.”
The group pointed to statistics they said indicate the number of lawsuits in Illinois have actually declined 26 percent since 2007, while more than 70 percent of lawsuits in Illinois are filed by businesses.
ITLA also attacked the assertion the legal climate has harmed Illinois’ economy, saying they believe businesses, and particularly big businesses, have shown no reticence to locate in the state.
Chicago trial lawyer Stephen D. Philips, former president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, said Rauner and his supporters “want to close the courthouse doors to regular people.”
“There is no litigation crisis in Illinois,” Philips said.
(Editor's note: The Madison-St. Clair Record is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform).