Rarely does a single election have a seismic impact, but one election did in 2004. The aftershocks continue now, almost two years later, and the effect has been almost entirely positive. Flash back to 2004’s Illinois Supreme Court election. Defenders of the long-standing plaintiff-dominated judicial system argued:
• Electing Lloyd Karmeier would not impact the growing medical malpractice crisis driving doctors away.
• Appellate Judge Gordon Maag, Karmeier’s opponent, opposed outrageous lawsuits himself and was better suited to improve the judicial system.
• The legal system in southern Illinois, particularly in Madison and St. Clair Counties, couldn’t be changed after so many years.
• Medical malpractice insurance rates and premiums were driven by so many factors that rates would never fall.

Those were among the legal establishment’s common arguments. Amazingly, each of these assumptions has been proven wrong in less than two years. The final item on the list was refuted just weeks ago when Illinois’ largest medical malpractice insurer cut premiums an average of 5.2 percent due to malpractice reform measures enacted last year.

One by one, the three earlier “certainties” had been disproved. First, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a medical malpractice reform bill last August, setting reasonable limits on noneconomic damages in malpractice claims. This was a direct result of Judge Karmeier’s election to the Illinois Supreme Court. Politicians saw the outrage of doctors and voters caused by a runaway legal system in select Illinois courthouses. That outrage led to Karmeier’s election: voters sent a clear message and it frightened political leaders who worried they might be cast out of office.

While common sense should have indicated reform was necessary, fear of political losses ultimately caused politicians to move in the right direction, reminding us of the old adage that politics often comes before policy. The claim that Appellate Judge Gordon Maag was a reasonable jurist and opposed to frivolous and outrageous lawsuits was disproved by Maag himself: he filed a $110 million lawsuit against organizations that opposed him during the campaign, including the Illinois Chamber. Maag’s suit has been dismissed twice, but he persists with appeals and has filed a similar suit in federal court.

The claim that the legal system in Madison and St. Clair Counties couldn’t be changed has seen the most stunning invalidation. Not only did the election change the balance and temperament of the Illinois Supreme Court, it launched widespread restructuring of courts throughout the southern third of the state. Supreme Court justices make recommendations to fill vacancies in Appellate and Circuit courts in their districts, and the full Court customarily approves those recommendations.

Karmeier filled two vacancies on the seven-member Appellate Court in the 5th District—those appointments allowed appellants to expect fair hearings since the Appellate Court no longer is perceived as a rubber stamp for Madison-St. Clair County plaintiffs’ interests. He also filled two vacancies in Madison County’s Circuit Court and one each in Randolph and Jasper Counties. Each appointment has had a positive impact, particularly in the Madison-St. Clair judicial systems.

As evidence of rapid improvement in Illinois’ judicial system, consider these facts:
• Class action suits have declined dramatically in Madison County: there were 447 in 2004, 45 in 2005, and so far in 2006, zero.
• The Illinois Supreme Court overturned three outrageous class action lawsuits that sprang from southern Illinois courtrooms, including the astronomical $10 billion judgment against Philip Morris and two involving State Farm.
• In two cases, the Supreme Court indicated lawsuits should be filed in jurisdictions with bearing on the case, not simply in plaintiff-friendly venues.
• Illinois’ terrible judicial image is changing. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association improve both our 2005 rankings in fairness and quality compared to prior years.

We have a long way to go, but see clear signs of improvement. The challenge ahead is to build momentum. Powerful trial lawyer interests want to nullify these improvements. They’d like to rewrite laws or have them thrown out, starting with the medical malpractice reform of 2005. They want to replace reform-minded judges with their own hand-picked ones.

Trial lawyers lost their domination of the system and want it back, but coziness between plaintiffs’ lawyers and the judiciary in certain jurisdictions is being exposed and challenged. Those desiring greater balance must be engaged in the 2006 elections. Voters and employers must renew their zeal for change to prove Justice Karmeier’s election was just the first wave of electing fair-minded judges who’ll restore balance to Illinois’ courts. (Special thanks to Bob Schultz of JM Investments in Effingham and Illinois Chamber Board member, who contributed extensively to this article.) IBI