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March 30th, 2012

Madison County Judge Orders Bold Reform

Coming less than six weeks after a potentially game-changing judicial reform order in Philadelphia, the #1 Judicial Hellhole for the past two years, a judge in another perennial Hellhole has issued a comparable reform order that could serve to significantly shrink the nation’s largest asbestos docket.     

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Madison County Circuit Judge Clarence Harrison’s two-page order “dealt a swift blow to the . . . asbestos litigation system [there] by ordering all 2013 asbestos cases to be set on a ‘case-by-case basis.’  The order came just three days after Harrison heard arguments for and against a previous judge’s order allowing certain law firms to reserve trial dates in 2013, even though many of the cases weren’t on file with the court.”

The bottom line is that asbestos plaintiffs’ lawyers will no longer be allowed to reserve a trial date before they’ve actually filed a case, and this new reality promises to disrupt the lucrative racket they’d been running in the rural county for years with the blessing of judges to whom they’d often make generous campaign contributions.  Now the lawyers will no longer be able to market their advanced trial slots to potential asbestos clients nationwide, so the county’s absurdly disproportionate asbestos docket is much less likely in the future to be made up almost entirely of out-of-state plaintiffs.

On his Land of Lawsuits blog, Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch’s Travis Akin wrote, “This is a major breakthrough for reform. For too long, Madison County judges have allowed personal injury lawyers from across the country to clog our courts with cases that have no connection to the Metro-East, delaying justice for local residents who are waiting for their cases to be heard.”

 “The Court finds no continuing need for the pre-assignment of trial settings,” Judge Harrison stated in his order, issued late Thursday and effective immediately.

He was put in charge of the county’s asbestos docket in December, after Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder was removed from that position by Chief Judge Ann Callis when news broke of Crowder’s judicial retention campaign accepting $30,000 from three of the area’s largest asbestos firms.  Those firms were assigned 82% of the 2013 asbestos trial slots just days earlier and, even in a notorious Judicial Hellhole like Madison County, that was enough to create considerable controversy and a major headache for Callis, who is also up for retention in November.

While Judge Harrison’s order is certainly good news for longtime critics of the county’s handling of asbestos cases, it stopped short of definitively reforming forum and venue rules, which, the judge wrote, the court “will consider . . . based upon the specific facts of [each] case.”

But since Judge Harrison made a very disappointing forum decision in Woody v. Air & Liquid Systems Corporation just earlier this month, his order yesterday does not necessarily mean that all of Madison County’s problems with the shameless asbetos bar are over.  Stay tuned.  

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