'Judicial hellhole' losing reputation thanks to voters

'Judicial hellhole' losing reputation thanks to voters

There's been a revolution of sorts in the court system in southern Illinois, and it's all for the better.

Look at the number of class-action cases filed in Madison County. That area, just across the river from St. Louis, had recently been considered a "plaintiff's paradise" for venue-shopping attorneys who were seeking a county with friendly judges and juries inclined to favorable awards against big businesses.

In 1998 there was just one class-action case filed there. A year later there were 14. A year after that there were 39. In 2001, there were 60, followed by 76 in 2002, 106 in 2003, 56 in 2004 and 46 in 2005. Those numbers look great to plaintiff's attorneys, especially those law firms in the area that made millions off of judgments and settlements. But they were based on a corrupt and unfair judicial system. The American Tort Reform Association called Madison County the nation's "judicial hellhole."

So far this year not one class action case has been filed in Madison County. That's thanks to the federal Class-Action Fairness Act signed into law last year by President Bush. It moves large, interstate class-actions into the federal courts, and directs them out of state courts. As the president noted, the legislation keeps "out-of-state businesses, workers and shareholders from being dragged before unfriendly local juries, or forced into unfair settlements."

That's one big improvement in the southern Illinois judicial system. Another is the election of Lloyd Karmeier to the Illinois Supreme Court. Karmeier began by naming two fair-minded judges to the Illinois appellate court, narrowing the Democratic advantage on the Fifth District Appellate Court to 4-3. And judges in Madison County have enacted new policies aimed at leveling the playing field in civil cases.

Perhaps most significantly, three local judges up for retention this year say they now favor reforms of the local judicial system. That probably wouldn't have happened if not for Karmeier's election – and Democrat Gordon Maag's defeat – in November 2004. With that powerful signal sent by voters, the southern Illinois judiciary was put on notice to clean up its act.

"The judges all over the area saw what happened to Gordon Maag and it has made them nervous," said Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League.

Thanks to the electorate – and no thanks to the judiciary – southern Illinois' judicial reputation has been greatly improved. That's a tremendous endorsement of the power of the ballot box.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
Categories (2):Editorials, Opinions