Illinois’ Madison County Dropped from Judicial Hellhole List

December 19, 2007

Ann Callis knows Madison County’s court system has taken mighty public knocks, from President Bush branding it an example of medical malpractice litigation run amok to a special-interest group calling the venue a “judicial hellhole.”

As the county’s chief judge, Callis didn’t let such image-tarnishing depictions drive the reforms she’s pushed. But she’s got new proof that her changes, with her colleagues’ help, are quelling the critics.

On Tuesday, the American Tort Reform Association left Madison County off of its rankings of “judicial hellholes” for the first time in the list’s six years, big stuff for the local court system that once topped the rankings for three years in a row.

“It’s a very upbeat time for all of us in Madison County,” said Callis, the seven-year circuit judge who became chief judge in May 2006. While cautioning she’d never put much stock in what the pro-business lobbying group considers the worst legal venues for lawsuit defendants, the newest rankings “indicate we continue to move forward, making progress.”

The newest list is topped by South Florida, followed by Texas’ Rio Grande Valley and Gulf Coast, Illinois’ Cook County including Chicago, West Virginia and Nevada’s Clark County that includes Las Vegas.

The group behind the rankings said they strive to “identify areas of the country where the scales of justice are radically out of balance, and to provide solutions for restoring balance, accuracy and predictability to the American civil justice system.”

The pro-business group said South Florida topped the latest list, among other things, “for its reputation for high awards and plaintiff-friendly rulings that make it a launching point for class actions, dubious claims and novel theories of recovery.”

A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, Eunice Sigler, said the judges had not read the report and had no immediate comment.

In Illinois’ Cook County, home to what ATRA said was “a disproportionate number of the state’s large civil cases” lately involving pet food and peanut butter, chief judge Timothy Evans did not immediately reply to a faxed request by The Associated Press for comment.

Such questions about judicial workings once hounded Madison County, which Bush in January 2005 used as a backdrop for pressuring Congress to pass legislation limiting jury awards for medical malpractice. And the following August, Gov. Rod Blagojevich also visited that county, signing in Alton a new law seeking to hold down steep medical malpractice costs for doctors by limiting the amount of money people can collect in lawsuits against hospitals and physicians.

But Callis and her colleagues here have required mandatory mediation in medical malpractice cases and have sought to quash “forum or venue shopping” with a rule giving plaintiff’s attorneys just one change of judge per class action.

Numbers show improvement. Major civil cases _ those seeking at least $50,000 _ last year totaled 1,145 in Madison County, down from 1,297 in 2005, 1,439 in 2004 and 2,102 in 2003. Asbestos lawsuits dropped to 325 last year, nearly one-third of the 953 such cases in 2003. There were three class-action filings in 2006; just three years before that, there were 106.

Associated Press reporters Curt Anderson in Miami, Ryan Nakashima in Las Vegas, and Lawrence Messina in Charleston, W.Va. contributed to this report.

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