Madison County is once again on the "Judicial Hellhole" rankings released by American Tort Reform Foundation.
The county has moved up two spots from number five and is now ranked as the nation's third-worst court system, according to a report released Thursday. The county landed on the list in 2002 and has been on the judicial hellhole list six times since then.
Madison County Chief Judge Ann Callis said the rankings unfairly target the county.
"The judges in Madison County are dedicated to serving all citizens with equality, justice and dignity," she said in a statement.
Madison County worked its way off the list of judicial hellholes in 2007 by curbing forum shopping, enacting federal class-action legislation and adopting state medical liability reform but was back on the list in 2011.
Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch is a watchdog group of citizens, community leaders and small businesses working to educated the public about lawsuit about.
The American Tort Reform Foundation defines a "judicial hellhole" as "a place where judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner." The report is based on independent research, feedback from its members and by compiling the most significant court rulings and legislative actions over the year.
"Any Illini or Mizzou football fan would be thrilled to see their team ranked number three in the country," Travis Akin, executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said in a statement. "But I know nobody in the metro-east is cheering Madison County being ranked the nation's third-worst judicial hellhole - except, perhaps, for the personal injury lawyers who flock here to play the lawsuit lottery in Madison County's notoriously plaintiff-friendly courts."
The county is referred to as America's Asbestos Court in the report. About one in 10 of the asbestos cases filed in the county being filed by people who actually live or work in the county. That amounts to about 25 percent of all asbestos cases in the nation being handled in Madison County. As of Sept. 30, about 800 asbestos cases had been filed in the county and by the end of the year, more than 1,000 cases are expected to be filed. The previous high of 953 asbestos cases was reached in 2003.
"We are arbiters of justice, not barriers to justice, and we cannot prevent litigants from filing cases here. If and when the lawyers who represent corporations file a forum non conveniens motion, Judge (Clarence) Harrison rules on the motion with due diligence," Callis said. "Additionally, the claim that asbestos cases clog the court's docket is a myth," Callis added. "The last asbestos case that went to trial was almost three years ago and it resulted in a defense verdict. There is only one judge assigned to the asbestos docket, and he handles additional duties as well."
A forum non conveniens motion asks a judge to dismiss a case based on the fact that the jurisdiction is not the most convenient or appropriate venue for parties involved in the case. The judge can decide the case would be better suited to be heard in another jurisdiction.
Harrison, who handles the asbestos docket, has ended a system that allowed plaintiff firms in asbestos cases to reserve trial dates before a case had even been filed.
Harrison's order in March overturned a preliminary order assigning 2013 trial slots that was signed last year by Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder. Crowder was removed from the asbestos docket after her campaign received $30,000 in donations from three plaintiff firms that were awarded the majority of next year's trial slots.
In 2006, asbestos filings in Madison County reached a low point of 325. Since then, the number of asbestos filings has increased each year to 455 in 2007, 639 in 2008, 814 in 2009, 840 in 2010 and 953 in 2011, with the total expected to top 1,000 cases in 2012.
"Businesses look to move to places where the legal system is fair, so having the nation's third-most unfair lawsuit climate in the country is clearly keeping businesses and the jobs they bring from moving to Madison County," Akin said. "We have a broken court system in Madison County that is creating lawsuits, not jobs. Judges here need to take steps to restore fairness and common sense to our courts so we can begin to create jobs, not lawsuits."
Callis disagreed with Akin's assertion that judges in the county are unfair.
"The report's focus on any one individual case to suggest civil defendants do not get a fair shake before Madison County judges paints an unfair portrait," Callis stated. "The Illinois Civil Justice League, a pro-business group, in their recent endorsement of three Madison County judges noted that class actions, medical malpractice, and general civil case filings have all drastically decreased in Madison County. The true statistics run contrary to the blanket, unfair assertion that disparages an entire bench and county."
St. Clair County was on the foundation's watch list last year, but is not on the watch list nor the judicial hellhole list this year.
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Schaaf at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2667.