A new study published by the Illinois Civil Justice League shows that campaign contributions from trial lawyers to Illinois politicians and judges topped $35.25 million during the past 15 years.
Madison and St. Clair county courts, which along with Cook County host the state’s highest concentrations of civil litigation, factor prominently in "Justice for Sale III," a report analyzing campaign contributions made by the plaintiffs' bar and the profound impact they have in state, county and local governance and in keeping the judiciary in Democratic control.
The ICJL released its findings at a press conference in Chicago this morning in conjunction with Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch (ILAW) and the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA).
Results of the study show that in addition to the $6 million contributed through the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) legislative political action committee (PAC), the top 25 plaintiffs’ firms and their lawyers and family members collectively invested another $29 million in the campaigns of Illinois office seekers from January 2001 through March 2016.
The campaign contributions have gone to legislators, constitutional officers, judges, state’s attorneys, county board chairmen, circuit clerks, county party chairmen, mayors, union leaders and politically allied special interests.
Locally, attorneys and firms that litigate asbestos, medical malpractice and other mass torts, including Simmons of Alton, Korein Tillery of St. Louis and Keefe of Belleville, are among the most prolific campaign contributors in Illinois politics.
John Pastuovic, president of ICJL, called the flow of lawyer contributions "truly staggering," estimating that the $35 million spent in the last 15 years equates roughly to $264 spent every hour in that span of time.
Justice for Sale III also shows that more than 98 percent of trial lawyers’ donations were directed to "the most powerful incumbent politicians in Springfield and other Democrats," according to Pastuovic.
Members of House and Senate Judiciary committees - which determine what legislative proposals related to civil litigation will advance in their respective chambers - also are targeted by the plaintiffs' bar with heavy contributions, according to the report.
State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Belleville), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, is 12th on a list of the top 15 legislators and leaders who have received contributions from the ITLA PAC.
During the peak of Madison County's status as the nation's class action capital, Hoffman had served as of counsel with the Lakin Law firm, which was responsible for filing the most class actions in the local court system.
“While ITLA’s PAC and plaintiffs’ firms donated millions, policymakers they supported made Illinois’ tort laws even more to the trial lawyers’ liking,” Pastuovic stated. “During the study period, Madison County set an infamous national record for the most new class-action filings in a year, and a statewide medical liability crisis threatened critical care for Illinois patients."
Because of its national asbestos docket - the busiest in the country - the ICJL report ranks Madison County as having the highest litigation index in the state with 8.255 lawsuits filed per 1,000 residents. Cook County's index is 4.014 lawsuits per 1,000 residents and St. Clair County is 2.416 per 1,000 residents.
By comparison, the litigation index for the 35 other southern Illinois counties in the Fifth Judicial District, where Madison and St. Clair County are situated, is 1.413 lawsuits per 1,000 residents. In the state's other 64 counties, the litigation index is 1.239 per 1,000 residents.
Other findings in Justice for Sale III show that in counties such as Madison, St. Clair and Cook, dollars-per-capita judicial campaign spending equaled between $3 and $5 per resident. But in areas outside of these counties, judicial campaign spending amounted to less than a dime-per-resident over the same 15-year study period.
“Interesting if not surprising is the fact that the biggest trial lawyer donations supported campaigns in Cook, Madison and St. Clair counties – each widely known as once and future Judicial Hellholes,” Pastuovic stated. “And when one considers that these counties also host the state’s highest concentrations of lawsuits, it’s fair to ask: Is justice for sale in Illinois?”
Also noted in the study is the influence of trial lawyer donations to campaigns for mayor and municipal offices, including more than $500,000 to local Illinois mayoral campaigns and nearly $250,000 for other municipal races. Some of these donations flowed into local municipalities: Alton, Belleville, Cahokia, Caseyville, Centreville, Collinsville, East Alton, East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Godfrey, Granite City and Wood River.
The report further shows that top trial lawyer donations also extend to elections involving county chairmen, auditors, board of review members, states attorneys, treasurers and sheriffs in 17 Illinois counties, with more than $1.8 million donated to Democratic officials, $55,200 donated to Republican officials and $500 to independent campaign in Cook County.
Donations were heaviest in Madison, St. Clair and Cook counties. For instance, sizable donations were made mostly to incumbent county officials in Cook ($1,270,948), Madison ($421,264) and St. Clair ($99,691) counties.
The report says that these three counties account for 95 percent of the total trial lawyer donations to county candidates. The other 14 counties represented in the donations account for the other five percent.
In response to the report, ITLA president Christopher Hurley issued a statement saying that lawyer contributions are "dwarfed by the tens of millions spent by big businesses that want to change Illinois’ laws so they avoid accountability when they hurt workers and prey on consumers."
Hurley also took aim at the agenda of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
"Even if trial lawyers contributed what the Illinois Civil Justice League claims – a point that cannot be taken for granted given the questionable source and possibly suspect methodology – it pales in comparison to what one man, Bruce Rauner has spent on his own campaign and supporting candidates who subscribe to his dangerous agenda of reducing benefits for injured workers and shielding corporations from justice when their actions hurt others or pollute the environment," Hurley stated.
Special 'Hellhole' report
The release of Justice for Sale III prompted ATRA to issue a "special" Judicial Hellholes, an annual rating of what the group considers to be the most unfair civil court jurisdictions in the country.
“Madison, St. Clair and Cook counties have been featured regularly in the American Tort Reform Association’ extensively documented reporting on some the nation’s most unfair civil court jurisdictions,” stated ATRA president Tiger Joyce. “So the findings of Justice for Sale, quantifying as they do a disturbing level of influence exerted by the plaintiffs’ bar on the judges in these counties and lawmakers in Springfield, are particularly troubling to us."
“As more jobs- and tax revenue-providing businesses are targeted by often speculative and sometimes fraudulent litigation in the state’s Judicial Hellholes,” Joyce continued, “it will become that much harder for Illinois to solve its mounting debt problems. So we would encourage leaders in Illinois to begin taking meaningful steps to address imbalances throughout the state’s civil justice system.”