A Publication of WTVP

Hours after Gov. Blagojevich’s medical malpractice bill signing in August, the Illinois Chamber, with partners the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Civil Justice League, publicly urged the governor and legislators to “finish the job” and pass additional reforms. Recent progress has been dramatic, and there’s no reason to let up until fairness is restored to Illinois’ civil justice system.

Metro East St. Louis’ reputation for heavy-handed judicial practices was established decades ago by union influence, workers’ compensation litigation, and urban Democratic organizations whose courthouse influence rivaled New York and Chicago. Over the years, Illinois became known for plaintiff-friendly judges, large jury awards, hospitality for venue shoppers, and readily accepting class action lawsuits.

Madison County courts are known for high-dollar class action lawsuits involving Phillip Morris and other Fortune 500 companies. Doctors in Madison and St. Clair counties pay higher medical malpractice insurance premiums; almost half were named in medical malpractice suits in recent years. In 2003 and 2004, the American Tort Reform Association tagged Madison County the top “Judicial Hellhole” in America. A national survey found Illinois courts to have the 46th worst reputation among the states.

Progress in reforming Illinois courts and mending our reputation has been measurable in small steps and giant leaps, the most dramatic being the 2004 election of Lloyd Karmeier to the Illinois Supreme Court. Karmeier’s seat was previously viewed as property of a “partnership” involving powerful plaintiffs’ attorneys, Madison and St. Clair counties’ political machines, and judges whose elevation to the bench depended on Democrats who held the seat for 34 years. Southern Illinois voters understood this negative reputation was affecting them. The judiciary was hurting the medical community, limiting access to health care, destroying jobs, and deterring growth.

The impact of Karmeier’s election has been fast and impressive. Karmeier has appointed two Appellate Court justices and two Circuit Court judges, with a third pending. These appointees represent dramatic change in court philosophy, a basis for Karmeier’s broad business and health care community support.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s August dismissal of a $1 billion class action suit against State Farm demonstrates change. Chief Justice McMorrow’s majority opinion didn’t mention it, but Justices Freeman and Kilbride’s dissent suggested the opinion reflected increased attention on the system.

Concerned organizations like the Illinois Chamber, the U.S. Chamber, and the Illinois Civil Justice League have drawn attention to problems with advertising and media campaigns, town hall meetings, and raising judicial reform’s status in the public arena. The governor signing a new medical malpractice law demonstrates voters’ mandates get legislators’ attention. Illinois legislators supported reform because they understood the political risks.

Gordon Maag lost his Illinois Supreme Court election bid. He also lost his Appellate seat, something no other Illinois Appellate Court judge had experienced. Voters saw Maag’s candidacy as representing a legacy of unfair courts and negative connotations, and status quo was no longer acceptable. In related developments, an active asbestos plaintiff law firm in Madison County started filing suits in Delaware and other states. Civil litigation in Madison County has decreased in 2004 and 2005.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on a “change of venue” for a Madison County case that should have been filed in Macoupin or Green County shows progress. Madison County courts and the Appellate Court said it could stay there, but Supreme Court Justice Freeman wrote the opinion that it appeared to be “forum shopping” and should be sent to the logical jurisdiction.

The mood within the court system is changing. Class action suits against Allstate and Ford in St. Clair County resulted in jury verdicts for the defendants; suits against Verizon and Dell were forced to arbitration when the Appellate Court overruled two Madison County Circuit decisions that ignored parts of contractual agreements.

During 2004’s highly publicized Supreme Court race, Madison County Judge Nicholas Byron, who created the “rocket docket” in his 10-year rule over some 5,000 asbestos suits, stepped down from authority over the docket. His replacement, Judge Dan Stack, dismissed six cases from out-of-state plaintiffs, calling them a “cash cow” for the county and ruling Madison County an improper venue.

In 2004, southern Illinois courts saw lawsuit filings in the Fifth Judicial District drop 17 percent. In Madison County, filings dropped nearly 32 percent. Asbestos filings were cut in half. One-third fewer medical malpractice lawsuits were filed in St. Clair County.

These trends represent advances in fairness and balance in Illinois’ judicial system. The Supreme Court’s actions indicate the problems with some jurisdictions have been on the radar screen; voters’ actions at the polls suggest they hear the warning signals loud and clear. Progress is being made to reverse Illinois’ negative reputation for courthouses that are inhospitable and unfair to business. IBI